After the corona restrictions were still in place for the past two years, tens of thousands of Christians from all over the world are now celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem again. Patriarch Pizzaballa warned of an increase in violence in the Middle East.
Almost three years after the outbreak of the corona pandemic, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem for the first time. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, Christians prayed at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve while police cordoned off Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity and tourists scanned for selfies.
A festive mood prevailed in Bethlehem, inhabited by both Christians and Muslims. A huge Christmas tree and colorful balloons decorated the streets, Boy Scout groups marched through the streets playing the bagpipes under the eyes of numerous spectators.
Christmas procession reaches Bethlehem
The traditional Christmas procession arrived in Bethlehem in the afternoon. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, drove in a convoy of cars from the Old City of Jerusalem to the city, which is almost ten kilometers away, via the Israeli checkpoint. The patriarch covered the last part of the way to the Manger Square on foot.
Numerous believers greeted the patriarch, who arrived at Manger Square more than an hour late. There he was received by Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania Salman and other politicians and church representatives. Together they went to celebrate Vespers in the Catholic Church of St. Catherine next to the Basilica of the Nativity, which was built under Emperor Constantine over the grotto traditionally regarded as the birthplace of Christ.
Hundreds of people gathered at Krippenplatz in the early afternoon. A huge Christmas tree with a star at the top adorned the square in front of the Church of the Nativity. Image: AFP
Concern about politics in Israel
At midnight, Pizzaballa celebrated the central Christmas mass in St. Catherine’s Church next to the Basilica of the Nativity. In his sermon, he lamented the increase in violence in the Holy Land. “We see with our eyes that violence seems to have become our main language, our main way of communication,” said the Italian Franciscan. Violence is increasing, especially in political language, but also in the media, social relationships, schools, and families.
Pizzaballa reiterated his concern about current policies in Israel, which risk “upsetting the already fragile balance between the diverse religious and ethnic communities that make up our society.” In addition, 2022 has seen a “terrific rise in violence in Palestinian streets, with a death toll that has set us back decades,” the Patriarch said. This is a sign of growing political tensions and unrest, particularly among young people, over an increasingly distant resolution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the same time, the Palestinian question no longer seems to be the focus of the world. “This is also a form of violence that offends the conscience of millions of Palestinians,” who are increasingly being left alone, Pizzaballa said. The head of the Latin Catholics in the Holy Land lamented a loss of trust that made violence the only language.