Christmas, one of the most important Christian holidays of the year, is being celebrated today throughout the Middle East. Although Christians constitute only a small percentage of the total population of the Middle East (around 5 percent), non-Christians are supporting their Christian neighbors in different ways to make sure they have a safe and joyful celebration.
The Christmas celebration itself appears to be getting a multi-faceted meaning in the West Bank. Despite the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has been a popular tourist destination for decades.
These days, Palestinians offer a different kind of tourism that focuses not only on religious pilgrimage for Christians from across the world, such as short visits to the Church of the Nativity before returning to Israel, but also more prolonged stays to explore the lives of Bethlehem’s Palestinian inhabitants—their history and culture.
This year, Bethlehem celebrates Christmas with a big Christmas tree for various Christian denominations. It will also be a venue for an international Santa convention.
Bethlehem now offers old-fashioned guesthouses and authentic food and art to visitors. The local municipality hopes that this approach will attract more tourists who will get to appreciate both the local people as well as the ancient holy sites.
This year, Bethlehem celebrates Christmas with a big Christmas tree for various Christian denominations. It will also be a venue for an international Santa convention. As the security situation gets more stable, there is hope that the new form of tourism centered on appreciating Palestinian people and their culture in Bethlehem will improve the lives of local residents.
Yet Christmas this year may be a challenge for some Palestinian Christians. Israeli authorities, citing security concerns, banned the small community of about a thousand Gazan Christians from visiting the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to celebrate Christmas. Israeli activists condemned the decision as “an extreme violation of freedom of movement.”
Heads of Christian churches hope to overturn the ban with the help of Israeli government officials who oppose it. Leaders of Catholic churches in Israel have also appealed to foreign diplomats to weigh in on the Israeli government and lift the travel restriction.
In Lebanon, Christians make up close to 40 percent of the country’s population and hold the most prominent political representation in the Middle East. Although deep sectarian divisions and 18 officially recognized religious sects have defined this nation of 6 million for decades, Christmas is still the most celebrated holiday in the country.
This holiday has brought together, and even united, Lebanon’s religiously and politically diverse people, who have often been at loggerheads.
And despite the escalating political paralysis, economic crisis, and raging street protests since October, there are many hopeful and positive developments. This holiday has brought together, and even united, Lebanon’s religiously and politically diverse people, who have often been at loggerheads, as evidenced by its 15-year war that ended in October 1990. They manage to put aside their differences during Christmas.
Indeed, there is a distinctly Lebanese spirit on display in the midst of the current politically bleak situation.
Being home to more than a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, many of them Christians, Lebanese Christian groups and parishes are feeding refugees and providing them medical services; ordinary people are offering gas for heating to those who cannot afford it; lawyers and doctors are giving free assistance to the needy; and food banks and pharmaceutical companies are distributing free food and medicine to poor families.
In Egypt, Christians remain wary about their future in this majority-Muslim country, where they fear Muslim extremists are bent on driving them out of the country. Although President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has reiterated his support for Coptic Christians since 2013, some Christians claim that their political status in Egypt remains uncertain, while others say things are better.
Christmas celebration is still on the agenda in Egypt. Cairo Opera Ballet Company plans to put on The Nutcracker ballet performance from December 25 through 29.
But despite the politics and violence, the Christmas celebration is still on the agenda in Egypt. Christmas concerts have been planned at the American University in Cairo and the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses. Cairo Opera Ballet Company plans to put on The Nutcracker ballet performance from December 25 through 29. A Christmas Eve Dinner, accompanied with live music, was planned in downtown Cairo for December 24.
And a Christmas Fantasy celebration with songs, dance performances, and a parade kicked off on December 20. In an effort to reassure Christians, Egyptian authorities deployed additional security forces in recent days to beef up safety and security of churches prior to the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
In Iraq, given the ongoing political crisis and violent riots, Iraqi Christian leaders unanimously agreed to cancel Christmas celebrations earlier this month to show their solidarity with the protesters, who have been demanding a wholesale political reform from their government. More than 400 protesters were killed, and thousands have been injured since October.
An unprecedented display of colorful Christmas decorations in a number of Syrian cities is intended to send a message of hope.
In Syria, on the other hand, Christians continue to celebrate Christmas with festive events, Christmas trees and decorations, and prayers despite the nine-year civil war. This year, an unprecedented display of colorful Christmas decorations in a number of Syrian cities is intended to send a message of hope, even though many people have expressed frustration with such extravagance, given the shortage of basic food staples and fuel.
Although violence, persecution, and discrimination against Christians in the Middle East in recent years have put a big question mark on their future, nevertheless, in the ever-changing political landscape of the region, Christians hope that the continued recognition and celebration of Christmas against all odds will highlight and ensure their rightful presence in their spiritual homeland.