Christian minorities celebrate Christmas across the Middle East, pandemic dampens spirit
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Bethlehem on Thursday ushered in Christmas Eve with a stream of joyous marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, but few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Similar subdued scenes were repeated across the Middle East as the festive family gatherings and packed prayers that typically mark the holiday were scaled back or cancelled altogether, generally replaced with symbolic scenes and initiatives.
In Iraq, it wasn’t Santa on a sleigh, but it was close: just before dusk on Christmas Eve, a busload of volunteers pulled into the Iraqi Christian town of Qaraqosh to deliver holiday happiness.
Under a pinkish sky, they disembarked from their charter bus with cardboard boxes full of Christmas cards, bearing hand-written messages from across Muslim-majority Iraq.
“A special greeting to our Christian brothers,” read one card, signed in the overwhelmingly Muslim southern port city of Basra the previous day.
— “”Beautiful initiative” —
On foot, members of Iraq’s Tahawer (Dialogue) initiative and other volunteers delivered some 1,400 cards across the northern town, which was ravaged by jihadist rule after the Islamic State group advanced east across the Nineveh Plains in 2014.
“It’s a beautiful initiative,” said Rand Khaled, after receiving a Christmas card outside the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh.
She was dressed in her Christmas Eve finest, with a chic chocolate-coloured coat shielding her from the cold.
“We need initiatives like this every once in a while, because people who don’t know these areas absolutely should get to know them,” Khaled said.
Iraq’s Christians number around 400,000 today, down from some 1.5 million before the US-led invasion toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It is a tiny minority in a country of 40 million people, most of whom are Shia Muslims.
The cards came from all over Iraq: from the capital Baghdad and the Shia shrine city of Najaf, from mainly Sunni Arab Salahaddin province in the west and the Kurdish city of Dohuk in the far north.
They were packed into dozens of boxes and transported up to 950 kilometres (600 miles) through military checkpoints before reaching Qaraqosh.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Nishwan Mohammad, Tahawer’s programme manager.
“People were ecstatic — they never expected someone to come visit them, much less bring them letters from all over Iraq,” he said.
— Renewing hope —
In Bethlehem, officials tried to make the most out of a bad situation.
“Christmas is a holiday that renews hope in the souls,” said Mayor Anton Salman. “Despite all the obstacles and challenges due to corona and due to the lack of tourism, the city of Bethlehem is still looking forward to the future with optimism.”
Raw, rainy weather added to the gloomy atmosphere, as several dozen people gathered in the central Manger Square to greet Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Youth marching bands playing Christmas carols on bagpipes, accompanied by pounding drummers, led a joyous procession ahead of the patriarch’s arrival early in the afternoon.
“Despite the restrictions and limitations we want to celebrate as much as possible, with family, community and joy,” said Pizzaballa, who was to lead a small Midnight Mass gathering later in the evening. “We want to offer hope.”
Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually flock to Bethlehem for the celebrations. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas they administer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.
The restrictions limited attendance to residents and a small entourage of religious officials. Evening celebrations, when pilgrims normally congregate around the Christmas tree, were cancelled, and Midnight Mass was limited to clergy.
The coronavirus has dealt a heavy blow to Bethlehem’s tourism sector, the lifeblood of the local economy. Restaurants, hotels and gift shops have been shuttered.
While many places around the globe were keeping or increasing restrictions for Christmas, Lebanon was an exception.
With its economy in tatters and parts of its capital destroyed by a massive August 4 port explosion, Lebanon has lifted most virus measures ahead of the holidays, hoping to encourage spending.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates have arrived home for the holidays, leading to fears of an inevitable surge in cases during the festive season.
Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East — about a third of its 5 million people — and traditionally celebrates Christmas with much fanfare.
“People around us were tired, depressed and depleted, so we said let’s just plant a drop of joy and love,” said Sevine Ariss, one of the organisers of a Christmas fair along the seaside road where the explosion caused the most damage.
— New addition —
Christmas is usually celebrated in Arab states with a Christian minority but the newest addition to the list of countries where the season was marked this year is Saudi Arabia.
Christmas trees and glittery ornaments were for sale at Saudi gift shops, a once unthinkable sight in the cradle of Islam where all public non-Muslim worship is banned.
In recent years, festive sales have gradually crept into the capital Riyadh, a sign of loosening social restrictions after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz pledged to steer the conservative Gulf kingdom towards an “open, moderate Islam.”
Until barely three years ago, it was almost impossible to sell such items openly in Saudi Arabia, but authorities have been clipping the powers of the clerical establishment long notorious for enforcing Islamic traditions.
For decades, Christmas sales were largely underground, and Christians from the Philippines, Lebanon and other countries celebrated behind closed doors or in expat enclaves.
“It was very difficult to find such” Christmas items in the kingdom, said Mary, a Lebanese expat based in Riyadh who preferred to be identified by her first name.
“Many of my friends used to buy them from Lebanon or Syria and sneak them into the country,” she said.
Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.
Local officials say school textbooks, once well-known for degrading Jews and other non-Muslims, are undergoing revision as part of Prince Mohammed’s campaign to combat extremism in education.
The heir to the Saudi throne has curbed the influence of the once-powerful religious police, as he permits mixed-gender music concerts, cinemas and other entertainment, but temples and churches are still forbidden.
Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus on either December 25 or, for the Eastern Orthodox, January 7. It is not a religious occasion for Muslims but many choose to mark the holiday for its festive and joyous character.