Thursday, November 16, 2023

Canceling Christmas

Christmas is being canceled in the Holy land. It is the latest casualty of the Gaza War – in addition to the thousands of human victims. Leaders of major Christian denominations in Jerusalem have called on churches to tone down Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. Instead of joyous public celebrations, they are calling for quiet prayerful observances.

Bethlehem, Nazareth, Haifa, and Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter usually celebrate Christmas with parades, bazaars, street concerts and light decorations. But the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem recently issued a statement asking these Christian communities to cancel the large public celebrations. They said that this is a time of “sadness and pain,” and they are calling on Christians to pray for and aid the victims of war. 

I doubt that this is going to put a damper on American celebrations of Christmas. American Christians seem to have forgotten our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. They do not stand in solidarity with them. Tens of thousands of people came to the March for Israel rally in Washington recently, but you will not see anything like that in support of Christians in the Holy Land. American Christians try to outdo each other in defense of Israel, but they never think of their fellow Christians in harm’s way. They have effectively been canceled.

Christianity in Gaza dates to the fourth century, and Gaza is home to some of the oldest churches in the world. There are one thousand Christian believers living in Gaza today, a tiny fraction of the two million population. On October 19 the third oldest church in the world, Saint Porphyrios Church in Gaza, was damaged by Israeli missiles, killing 18 and injuring 30 Christians. They had taken refuge in the church, thinking it would be safe from attack. There was hardly a peep heard from Christians in America in response.

If the third oldest Jewish synagogue in the world had been bombed with Jews seeking protection inside, there would have been outrage from Jews and Christians. If this had been the third oldest mosque in the world (the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), there would have been an uproar from the Muslim community. But the third oldest church? Ho, hum, who cares! Such is the fate of Christians in the Holy Land. They are the forgotten victims of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Christians in the Holy Land have been living between a rock and a hard place (the rock of Israelis and the hard place of Muslims) ever since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Bethlehem and Nazareth used to be majority Christian towns. Christians were the majority when we were there. No longer. Due to systematic prejudice and discrimination, Christians have been forced to emigrate. Now Palestinian Christians are a tiny minority of 180,000 in the land of Jesus’ birth.

I remember fondly my time getting to know the Christian community in the Holy Land while studying for a semester at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, located on a hill overlooking Bethlehem. My whole family came with me, and we occupied a flat with a balcony overlooking Bethlehem. One of my instructors was a Palestinian pastor named Naim Ateek, who traces his ancestry to the first century followers of Jesus. My daughter’s best friend was a little girl named Maria, who was descended from a Crusader.

We met Christians of Arabic, Jewish, and European heritage. We worshipped at Narkis Street Congregation (at that time it was called Narkis Street Baptist Church) in Jerusalem, a Messianic congregation, where we sang praise to Christ in Hebrew. We worshipped at the Jerusalem Baptist Church where we sang hymns in Arabic. We worshipped at Christ Church in Jerusalem, an Anglican congregation with a menorah on the altar and the Jewish context of the gospel is celebrated. Our daughter took her first communion there, the Sunday after she was baptized in the Jordan River.

Every year we decorate our tree with ornaments from our time in Bethlehem. We erect a crèche purchased at an olive wood workshop on Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem. Before Israel built the wall around Bethlehem, my family used to regularly walk unhindered from our flat into Bethlehem. There was not even a military checkpoint at that time over thirty years ago. (I have hosted tours of Israel for shorter periods of time since then.) I can still picture the little market near the border where we bought vegetables and bread.

Every Christmas I can smell the scent of incense from within the Church of the Nativity, which we visited often. I remember drinking tea outside the basilica in Manger square. I remember worshipping in Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem and visiting the Bethlehem Bible College. We shopped for Christmas gifts at a Christian women’s craft show in Bethlehem. We still use those gifts.

This Christmas I will remember the Christians of the Holy Land, including the Christians in Gaza. While American Christians give each other unneeded gifts, I will donate to relieve the suffering of innocent civilians – Christians, Jews and Muslims – in the Holy Land. I will remember those who observe the holiday “in sadness and pain” in the Holy Land this year. I will speak and pray for peace.

While calloused politicians justify the killing of thousands of civilians as necessary collateral damage in a war against terrorism, I will remember innocent Christians huddling in a church in Gaza, wondering if anybody cares. I will not cancel Christmas, but neither will I forget my brothers and sisters of all faiths in the land where the Prince of Peace was born. As Jesus said, “As you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”

(If you are moved to donate, I consider the most trustworthy organization to be the Red Cross, which is doing heroic work in the war zone of Gaza.)


Randy Hilman said...

I"m pleased to join you. For others:

For those who wish to help people affected by the humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict in Israel and Gaza that escalated in October 2023, we ask that they write “Middle East Humanitarian Crisis” in the memo line of a check and mail it with a completed donation form ([donate>donate by mail>download check donation form] to the address on the form or to their local Red Cross chapter.

Your donation will be used by the Red Cross Movement where it’s needed most to help all those in the impacted region.

For those interested in learning more about international humanitarian law and its vital role in protecting the innocent during armed conflict, please visit

The American Red Cross has a duty to fulfill the Geneva Conventions’ purpose of reducing suffering during armed conflict. As part of our duty, the American Red Cross leads the effort to ensure Americans are informed of these laws and the humanitarian principles they reflect.

Currently, the American Red Cross and our global Red Cross partners are not accepting donations of in-kind goods such as food, clothing or blankets. These items can be difficult to manage on the ground and divert resources from our mission. Other charitable organizations are better suited to manage such donations.

Randy Hilman

Randy Hilman said...
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