In Bethlehem, which resides in the West Bank, Palestinian Christian leaders have canceled all Christmas and Advent festivities this year in solidarity with the Palestinians living through the siege in Gaza. A season that is the source of great joy for some, celebrating the birth of Jesus, will be instead marked with immense grief and despair this year in the very place where he was born.
Palestinian Christians trace their history to the very origins of the Christian church 2,000 years ago. Their ancestors have lived on the land ever since, while others migrated to the land over the centuries. Today, Palestinian Christians make up only a small percentage of Palestine and Israel, somewhere between one and three percent, but they are nonetheless the lifeblood of the Christian church in this part of the world.
As the fighting in Gaza continues and the death toll continues to climb in Palestine and Israel, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) connected with pastors and partners to ask what they would want Christians in Canada, the U.S. and rest of the world to know about the realities that Palestinian Christians are facing.
The Rev. Ashraf Tannous is from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem. He says there should be a deep, connected unity to the Christian church in times like these.
“I want to remind everyone, and especially the Christians all over the world, that we are all praying the Lord’s prayer,” says Tannous. “The first words, we say, ‘Our father,’ This means that the moment we say, ‘Our father,’ there are relationships created. We are the children of God. We are brothers and sisters.”
In late October, the Church of Saint Porphyrius, a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City believed to be the third-oldest active church in the world, was impacted by a series of airstrikes. Sixteen Palestinians were killed in that attack, with dozens more injured, leaving those seeking shelter unsure if even places of worship would offer the safety they are desperate for.
Pastor Sally Azar is a pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. She says even though Christians make up a small percentage of Palestinians, prayer is not about numbers.
“We Palestinian Christians here in the Holy Land, we’re quite far away from a lot of places of the world, but people forget that we as Christians exist,” she says. “And people forget that we, as a Christian community, have been here for over 2,000 years. I ask you all to pray for us here in this land, in this part of the world, that we have the patience and endurance to bear it all; to pray that we feel seen and to pray for a peaceful place to live in, a place where we can all coexist as one church.”
Omar Haramy is the director of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an MCC partner in Jerusalem. He says as the fighting has gone on, and he and his community have watched the death toll rise past 20,000, it is increasingly hard to feel hopeful for peace.
“When we go to church in Jerusalem, so much is happening in our minds and our hearts,” says Haramy. “Do we pray for the soldiers standing at the corner? Do we pray for the Palestinian students? Do we pray for ourselves and our communities? Do we pray for the international community that everybody contributes to doing peace rather than contributing to conflict? We do pray, we do ask God to help us. But God is not answering.”
Azar shared a similar sentiment, saying “You see [on social media], these people have died from my family, and you feel like ‘What can we do?’ We feel so helpless in that sense.”
Tannous shared what he has been praying for in hopes of encouraging Christians all across the world to join him in faith and in action.
“I pray that there will be enough people to shout and be the voice of the voiceless. I pray for mercy. I pray as Jesus said: blessed are the peacemakers because they will be called the children of God. I pray that the whole world would recognize us as Palestinians here. That we are the descendants of Jesus. We are the people of this land. I pray that peace may prevail. I pray that love may prevail. And I pray that people may feel our suffering and act accordingly.”
MCC’s response in Palestine and Israel is currently focused on the humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip, distributing food baskets and emergency bedding to vulnerable families. MCC’s partners are responding as they are able, despite the highly dangerous conditions.