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Middle East Christians Celebrate Christmas Season in the Holy Land

FILE Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas tree lighting celebration in Gaza City, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
FILE Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas tree lighting celebration in Gaza City, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

JERUSALEM, Israel – It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the Holy Land.

On Friday, Gaza’s tiny Christian community celebrated the season by lighting a Christmas tree. Hundreds attended the joyful ceremony at a Christian youth center in the Gaza Strip.

"The feeling (of joy) today was huge and great, especially as the tree had not been lit for a year due to the corona pandemic. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, and the Christmas tree is symbol that brings good,” Suhail Tarazi, Head of Gaza's branch of the YMCA, told AP.

Last year’s celebration was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak in Gaza.

This year, many Gazan Christians were happy to celebrate after surviving a devasting 11-day war in May between the Hamas terror group and Israel.

"The past year in the Gaza Strip was a difficult one in which we have seen a war and the corona pandemic," said Samer Tarazi, a Gazan Christian. "I hope next year will be better, with peace prevailing all over the globe and the world helping us to get our rights and allow us, the Palestinians, to visit the Holy Land in the West Bank and Bethlehem."

Israel said last month that it would allow 500 Christians from Gaza to enter Israel and the West Bank – biblical Judea and Samaria – to celebrate Christmas. There are about 1,000 Christians in Gaza and there have not been public Christmas celebrations in the coastal enclave since Hamas rose to power in 2007.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, a massive Christmas tree is on display in Manger Square. The city kicked off Christmas celebrations earlier this month with fireworks, traditional Palestinian dancing, and a nativity show.

Before the pandemic, thousands of tourists and pilgrims traveled to Bethlehem every year to visit the city's many holy sites including the Church of Nativity, believed to be built on the exact spot where Christ was born. Tourists are currently banned from the Holy Land due to fears about the Omicron variant, so Bethlehem is relying on locals to boost tourism.

"The unemployment raised up a lot,” said Bethlem Mayor Anton Salman. “For that, our only way and our only choice is to focus on Bethlehem again and to encourage people to come and visit the city.”

Christmas decorations and holiday events can also be found in the Arab Israeli city of Nazareth. According to the Bible, Nazareth is where Jesus Christ grew up and where an angel told Mary she would bear the son of God.

Local Christians are also celebrating Christmas with festivities in the Armenian and Christian quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City.

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