Palestinians in a besieged Gaza celebrate Christmas with heavy hearts

AFP , Thursday 24 Dec 2015

'We pray that the king of peace, our lord Jesus, brings us peace, that Palestine will be liberated'

Gaza Christmas celebration
In this file photo dating back to 7 January, 2015, a Palestinian Christian girl attends a the Orthodox Christmas mass at the Saint Porphyrius church in Gaza. Israel is allowing only 800 Gazan Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem this upcoming Orthodox Christmas. (Photo: AFP)

It is a bitter Christmas for Elias Manna, who will celebrate alone for the first time because his five sons have left the Gaza Strip, the besieged Palestinian territory subjected to three Israeli assaults since 2008.

"At first, they left to study there," Manna, 62, said as he stood before the large wooden cross in front of a church for Latin rite Catholics in Gaza City, explaining that his sons moved to Europe.

"But they never returned because there is no work that would allow them to stay here with us."

The dwindling number of Gaza’s Christians, a small portion of the mainly Muslim population, face the same hardships as everyone else in the war-torn enclave, but some say there are added pressures as well.

They speak of worries about growing extremism in Gaza, where Salafist jihadists have posed a limited yet significant challenge to the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the territory.

"If young people leave for the United States and Europe, it is because they don't see any opportunities here," said Saad, 50. "Life is suffocating and extremism is growing."

He added that the thought of moving to certain Arab countries in the Middle East frightened him due to the "crimes of the Islamic State," the jihadist group that has targeted Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

The Palestinian territories are located in the Holy Land at the heart of the Christian faith and include Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, where tradition says Jesus was born.

But the number of Christians living in the Palestinian territories has fallen to 52,000, or 1.37 percent of the Palestinian population.

Most of them live in the occupied West Bank, while less than six percent are in besieged Gaza. More than double that number -- around 7,000 -- lived in the strip only about a decade ago.

Life has become increasingly difficult in the strip squeezed between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. The 2014 assault by Israel saw the deaths of 2,200 Palestinians, and 73 Israelis, along with the destruction of Gaza hospitals, schools, and thousands of homes.

Reconstruction has been slow due to the blockade, which prevents the shipment of basic building materials, as well as a lack of donor money and coordination between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank and dominated by bitter rival Fatah.

Around two-thirds of young people are unemployed, and a recent survey showed that half of Palestinians living in Gaza want to leave the territory -- though the blockade and strict border controls by Israel and Egypt keep many from doing so.

The head of Roman Catholics in the Holy Land spoke of such suffering at a mass at the Holy Family Church in Gaza during a rare visit to the strip to celebrate Christmas.

"We have seen violence, exile, hunger, and pain," said Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and a Jordanian. "We place our hope in the year to come, that it brings more justice, equality, unity, and mercy."

He also talked of "those who suffer, those who are displaced, those whose homes have been destroyed, who have lost their property."

Gaza Christian George Antoun said it is difficult to celebrate in such circumstances.

"We celebrate the birth of Christ, but at the same time we are suffering from what is happening in Palestine," he said.

"We pray that the king of peace, our lord Jesus, brings us peace, that Palestine will be liberated and we will be able to live like everyone else because that is our right."

But the complications facing the people of Gaza include visits to Bethlehem. While it is located less than 100 kilometres (62 miles) away, it may as well be in another hemisphere for many Palestinians in Gaza blocked by Israeli restrictions on visiting the West Bank.

This year, Israel says it has granted 800 passes to Gazan Christians to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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