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Volume 43, Number 1
  
14 December 2016
Greg Kandra




Members of the special police forces stand guard to secure the area around the Coptic Orthodox cathedral complex on 11 December after an explosion inside the complex in Cairo. ISIS has now claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 24 people.
(photo: CNS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters)


Fierce shelling halts Aleppo evacuation (BBC) A deal to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo has stalled, with heavy shelling reported in the Syrian city. A ceasefire was declared in Aleppo on Tuesday and buses brought in to ferry people out of the devastated enclave. But fighting resumed on Wednesday. Syrian activists also say air strikes over rebel-held territory have resumed...

ISIS claims credit for bombing of Coptic cathedral in Egypt (The Wall Street Journal) Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed 24 people at Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral this weekend, in what would be the first militant attack on a Christian house of worship in Egypt since 2011. It is the deadliest attack on civilians claimed by the terror group in Egypt since the October 2015 crash of a Russian passenger jet shortly after takeoff from the Red Sea resort city Sharm El Sheikh that killed all 224 people aboard...

AP: Life inside Mosul (AP) The Associated Press interviewed more than two dozen residents who have left Mosul since Iraqi troops began retaking outlying districts last month. They gave a glimpse into life in a place that has been virtually sealed off from the outside under the rule of the Islamic State group...

Soldiers raid agricultural lands in Gaza (International Middle East Media Center) Israeli forces, on Tuesday morning, leveled lands in the northern Gaza Strip, while opening fire on agricultural lands in the southern region of the coastal enclave, according to witnesses. Witnesses told Ma’an News agency that four Israeli bulldozers entered the northeastern Gaza Strip, from the Zekim military base, and leveled lands...

Russia’s Communist Party turns toward the Orthodox Church (Al Jazeera) More than 25 years after the Soviet collapse, the party vocally appeals to Orthodox Christianity, Russia’s dominant creed. The party’s sole post-Soviet chairman Gennady Zyuganov called Jesus “the first Communist” more than once...

Indian bishops launch new policy toward Dalits (Fides) To build a truly inclusive community is an ethical imperative: motivated by this intent the Indian Bishops’ Conference has launched a new policy of inclusion, support and development of Dalits, the poorest and marginalized sectors of Indian society. A document presented by Cardinal Baselios Cleemi, President of the Conference and, among others, by Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara and by Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Conference, explain that this policy aims to be a step forward, to “eradicate the practices of untouchability and caste discrimination at all levels, improving the living conditions of the Dalits and especially accompanying the Dalit Christians who seek constitutional protection and justice from the state...”



13 December 2016
CNEWA staff




Syro-Malankara Bishop Jacob Barnabas Aerath and Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, pose with village children during a visit to northeast India in late November. (photo: John E. Kozar)

CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar recently completed a pastoral visit to northern India, and it’s attracted some attention in the Catholic press.

From Catholic News Service:

In remote northeastern India, where Christianity is largely unknown, members of two Eastern Catholic churches are taking people on a journey of faith simply by living with them.

Priests, nuns and laypeople are living in mud-and-dung huts among tribal Indians, “reaching the unreached,” said Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which supports Eastern churches in India and other areas.

Msgr. Kozar spoke to Catholic News Service after returning from a recent trip to northeastern India. He described remote areas of jungle, forest, rolling hills and tea estates, where it is not unusual for people to have family members trampled to death by elephants.

Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics are “doing some wonderful evangelization work there” in a delicate situation, he said.

Msgr. Kozar asked not to specify the towns he visited. Although the Indian government says it accepts all religions, hardline Hindu nationalists have attacked Christians when they thought they were trying to convert people.

India’s most-Catholic state is Kerala, but Msgr. Kozar said the Eastern Catholics he visited are “breaking the Kerala model of building, building, building ... it’s living with the people; letting them come to know Jesus” by getting to know the missionaries who live with them.

“The sisters and the priests — the greatest witness that happens is they live” in the same conditions as the tribal people, inviting them “to get to know them, to get to know how they pray.”

He said there is no presumption that anything will happen, but there is an attitude of “we’re here, showing who we are.”

In these situations, people “draw closer to Jesus,” he told CNS. They are learning stories about the faith.

“This plays out in such a wholesome, beautiful way. ... You’re taking people who had no affiliation ... (but) they have this yearning to relate to a higher power,” he said, noting that some people who live with these missionaries are now preparing for baptism.

Ethnic Mishing children are seen in northeast India, where members of two Eastern Catholic churches are taking people on a journey of faith simply by living with them.
(photo: John E. Kozar)


The tribal languages are initially a barrier, Msgr. Kozar said. “There aren’t even textbooks to learn these languages.”

He noted that at one stop on his 20 November-2 December visit, he spoke in English, and translations included Bengali, Malayalam and the local language.

Religious are making portions of the Bible available in local languages and are beginning to train catechists, he said. This is especially challenging because many villages have no school, or people can only attend school for about five years, so they would not even have a middle-school education.

Despite all these obstacles, the missionaries are “trying to bring good news of Jesus where he has never been known.”

The churches “have to resist the temptation to build institutions,” he said. “This is about giving witness by living with the people.”

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church traces its roots to St. Thomas the Apostle. The Syro-Malankara Church was formerly a faction of the Jacobite Church, an Orthodox group in India, but reunited with the Holy See in 1930. Both are among 22 Eastern Catholic churches that originated in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. India also has a Latin-rite Catholic Church.

The trip was rich in personal encounters, as Catholic News Agency noted:

Msgr. Kozar recalled that in several of the villages they visited, “we were very warmly” embraced and frequently welcomed with dances and songs, “signs of great love and respect.”

“In some instances I was probably the first person with white skin to ever visit them,” he said, noting that the terrain in the remote tribal areas they visited is rough enough that people are still at risk of attacks by wild animals.

As an example, Msgr. Kozar said that during their trip one woman was mauled to death by a wild tiger, while a man was trampled by a herd of elephants that “poured out of a tea estate and trampled a poor three-wheeled jitney driver.”

“This is a very common occurrence,” Kozar said, noting that he met several people who had lost loved ones in similar incidents. The landscape, he added, “varies from jungle, to forest, to rolling tea estates to plains cultivating rice in paddies.”

He pointed to the “impressive” catechetical work that lay people, both indigenous and from the Syro-Malankara Church, do in the tribal areas.

Since it’s still early on in their formation, courses deal largely with basic concepts of God, Jesus and Mary, teaching the people simple prayers and bible passages, as well as the concept of what it means to pray.

“The people are responding wonderfully and welcomed us with religious singing and even did a religious enactment of the Prodigal Son in their tribal language,” Kozar said, explaining that they are likely on a two-year program to be baptized.

He stressed that there’s no hurry, and it could even take up to a year of more after their baptism before the people are fully introduced to the Eucharist. In this sense, he said the Syro-Malankara Church “is doing the evangelization in a most responsible way and I think in a durable way.”

At one event 575 tribal people came together to participate in a religious ceremony and cornerstone laying for a new Church, he said, noting that they came from different villages and tribes in the area, some of whom traveled 7 hours by truck or jitney (a small bus), or walked several miles on foot simply to welcome the delegation and be present for the event.

During the celebration, “many tribes shared their cultures with each other by dressing in their native handmade woven skirts and performed their ritual dances, perhaps for the first time shared with other tribes.”

“This was in itself probably an historic event for them,” he said, noting that “it was the Church which brought them together.”

Read more at CNA’s website.

Sisters and tribal women walk in a small village in northeast India. (photo: John E. Kozar)



Tags: India Catholic Indian Catholics Evangelization

13 December 2016
CNEWA staff




Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., gives the keynote address on 5 December at Villanova University’s conference on Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East.
(photo: Catholic Philly/Villanova University)


A recent gathering at Villanova University looked at the ongoing crisis in the Middle East — and found some compelling conclusions:

Consensus about the Middle East and its long-simmering tensions might seem hard to come by, but a dozen international scholars, government officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations found a few points of agreement during a meeting at Villanova University.

The ancient Christian community in the Middle East is in danger of extinction, along with other religious minorities. The violent conflicts and social unrest in many countries of the region have been inflamed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The prospects for peace and stability are bleak in the short term, and likely will not be resolved significantly for a generation at least.

That was the grim picture painted for 160 participants of the 5-6 December international conference examining the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in the context of the current political, social and security struggles of the region.

Organized by Augustinian Father Kail Ellis of the university, the conference drew top diplomats, scholars from Lebanon and the United States, and policy advisers, along with leaders of NGOs such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Vatican-approved agency based in New York.

An official with the U.S. State Department, Knox Thames, said in his keynote address to open the conference that protecting religious freedom was “not only important because it’s a human right but because it also gives rise to peace, security and development. It is instrumentally important in forging a better world.”

He was followed by speakers who acknowledged the rich cultural and intellectual contributions to society by Christians in the region from the time of the early church up to the present.

They also acknowledged that a diaspora of Christians from the region is in full swing. Driven by persecution, discrimination and war in Iraq and Syria, many Christians are fleeing, despite pleas from religious leaders to remain in their homelands.

Statistics from CNEWA show that while Christian communities have been a minority for a long time, their share of the population has declined dramatically in recent years. In 2015 Christians accounted for only between 1 percent and 6 percent of the population in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. Their numbers had been between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population 30 years ago.

Read more at this link.

CNEWA’s Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel, helped provide additional context in his speech at the conference, concluding:

Christian contributions in education, health care, and social advancement are huge in comparison to the size of the Christian presence and constitute a disproportionate contribution to the building of the various societies. This institutional presence is the pride of the Christian witness as services are provided to all segments of society with no distinction to religion, ethnic group, gender or nationality. Further, Christian institutions constitute the backbone of the Christian presence in the various countries where they are present. Generation upon generation has been able to carry this tradition and keep these institutions open and thriving. However, with the changing face of the Middle East at large and the Holy Land in particular, will we be able to maintain the tradition, and keep this Christian witness alive? Will the living stones remain or will they emigrate leaving a Holy Land consisting of Churches and monument Holy sites manned by a few religious men and women. This is the challenge for all of us as we move forward.

You can read the full speech here.



13 December 2016
Greg Kandra




High school student Christopher O’Hara was so inspired by CNEWA’s work, he organized a fundraiser for us at a New York restaurant earlier this year. (photo: CNEWA)

One of the inspiring figures from CNEWA’s recent past just may be our youngest hero: a 17-year-old student from Long Island, Christopher O'Hara.

Hearing about the work we do, he wanted to help support our mission, and got an idea that he hoped would make a difference:

I am a junior in high school, and I came to be involved in CNEWA in a rather unusual way. I spent a month last summer in rural Tibet studying Chinese and living with a local family. When I returned home, I was looking forward to spending the rest of my summer reading at the beach. But on one of those first quiet days, I ended up having a long and detailed conversation with a good friend of my parents, who wanted to tell me about an incredible organization she had been involved with, CNEWA. Her enthusiasm was contagious. The more I listened, the more I thought this was something I needed to look into. I did some research on CNEWA, and I could not have been more impressed. My parents’ friend put me in contact with Lauren Lozano, a development associate at CNEWA.

In my conversations with Lauren and her colleagues Norma Intriago and Philip Eubanks, we discussed how someone in my position could raise awareness and funds for CNEWA. At the same time we were having these conversations, the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq was exploding, and I thought the subsequent lack of international response was appalling. The professionals at CNEWA informed me of the real threat facing Christians in the Middle East, and I decided that my focus would be on their charitable operations in that region. I reached out to faculty and administration at my school, Chaminade High School, but I wanted to do more. It became clear that I should organize — with the help of my family and friends — a fundraising event. I told the people at CNEWA my idea, and we were off and running.

He ended up organizing a fundraiser at the renowned Gallagher’s Steakhouse in New York City last June. The event garnered some attention — and Chris even appeared on a local radio show to discuss his interest in CNEWA and how others can help.

As he put it during the interview: “People in need shouldn’t be a political issue. We’re all humans. When people are suffering, we have an obligation to help each other.”

We couldn’t agree more — and we remain grateful for so many like Chris O’Hara who are helping us to fulfill our mission: to “build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue — and inspire hope.”

To learn more about what you can do, and how you can help, visit this link.



13 December 2016
Greg Kandra




A boat representing migrants is pictured in the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 9 December. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

The Vatican installed its annual Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square last week, and the figures in the scene this year carry particular significance:

The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are symbols of God’s love and hope, reminding us to contemplate the beauty of creation and welcome the marginalized, Pope Francis said.

Baby Jesus, whose parents could find no decent shelter and had to flee persecution, is a reminder of the “painful experience” of so many migrants today, he said on 9 December, just before the Vatican Christmas tree was to be lit and its Nativity scene was to be unveiled.

Nativity scenes all over the world “are an invitation to make room in our life and society for God — hidden in the gaze of so many people” who are living in need, poverty or suffering, he told people involved in donating the tree and creche for St. Peter’s Square.

The northern Italian province of Trent donated the 82-foot-tall spruce fir, which was adorned with ceramic ornaments handmade by children receiving medical treatment at several Italian hospitals.

The 55-foot-wide Nativity scene was donated by the government and Archdiocese of Malta. It features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese attire as well as replica of a Maltese boat to represent the seafaring traditions of the island.

The boat also represents “the sad and tragic reality of migrants on boats headed toward Italy,” the pope said in his speech in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall.

“In the painful experience of these brothers and sisters, we revisit that (experience) of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth did not find accommodation and was born in a grotto in Bethlehem and then was brought to Egypt to escape Herod's threat.”

“Those who visit this creche will be invited to rediscover its symbolic value, which is a message of fraternity, sharing, welcoming and solidarity,” the pope said.

The Nativity scene and tree will remain on display until 9 January, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.



13 December 2016
Greg Kandra




A nun cries as she stands inside St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on 11 December after an explosion inside the cathedral complex in Cairo. (photo: CNS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)

Egypt mourns victims of attacks on cathedral (Reuters) Mourners packed an Egyptian church on Monday for a funeral service for 25 people killed in the bombing of Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral, while angry survivors accused authorities of security lapses. Tearful Christians gathered at the Virgin Mary and St. Athanasius Church in Cairo where Coptic Pope Tawadros II prayed over the wooden coffins of the victims of Sunday’s bombing, one the deadliest attacks on the Christian minority in recent memory. On the walls hung banners bearing the names of the dead, many of them women...

Egypt’s Christians pray for peace (Catholic Register) With 25 dead and as many as 21 of the 45 injured in hospital, victims of a suicide bomber at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt’s Christians are praying for the unity and peace of their nation, a Catholic pastor in Egypt’s Christian heartland told The Catholic Register...

Pope sends letter to Syria’s President Assad (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has sent a letter to the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, through Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, appealing for “an end to the violence and the peaceful resolution of hostilities” in the country...

U.N. says 35,000 children have fled Mosul (AP) The U.N. children’s agency said Tuesday that about 35,000 children have fled from Mosul since Iraqi forces and a U.S.-led coalition launched a massive operation in mid-October to retake the city from the Islamic State group. Iraqi special forces meanwhile pushed deeper into the city’s eastern part, retaking the Falah neighboring late Monday, said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. Fighting raged as a haze of fog and smoke hovered over the city, which was rocked by tank fire and airstrikes...

Pope sends message to migration and development forum (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has sent a message to participants in the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the message, sent through the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and published in the Osservatore Romano, the Holy Father “encourages governments and regional political authorities to confront the crisis provoked by the mass movement of people”...

World needs politics of peace, pope says (CNS) Calling for a new style of politics built on peace and nonviolence, Pope Francis also called for disarmament, the eradication of nuclear weapons and an end to domestic violence and abuse against women and children. “Violence is not the cure for our broken world,” he said in his annual message for the World Day of Peace on 1 January...



12 December 2016
J.D. Conor Mauro




Sreya Maria Therese attends Ashabhavan — a school for children with special needs, administered by the Sacred Heart Sisters — in Rajakkad, in the Idukki district of Kerala. To learn more about how this institution changes the lives of the children it serves, read Kerala’s House of Hope, appearing in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. (photo: Jose Jacob)



Tags: India Children Sisters Education Catholic education

12 December 2016
J.D. Conor Mauro




Egypt has declared three days of mourning after a bomb blast killed at least 25 people during a Sunday liturgy in a chapel next to the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo. (video: Al Jazeera)

Bombing at Egypt’s main Coptic cathedral kills 25 (Los Angeles Times) In the rubble outside Egypt’s main Coptic Christian church late Sunday, a crowd held a candlelight vigil for the 25 worshipers killed in a bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral earlier in the day. The explosion in a chapel adjacent to the cathedral left pews overturned, the floor bloody, strewn with glass and other debris, according to images posted online. “She died a martyr,” Monika Athnasious Botros wrote on Facebook, posting a photo of her elderly mother. She said the bodies had been left on the floor due to a lack of space in the morgue…

Pope calls Coptic pope to express condolences after Cairo attack (CNS) Pope Francis phoned Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria on 12 December, expressing his prayers and condolences for the previous day’s terrorist attack at the Cairo cathedral that left 25 people dead. “We are united in the blood of our martyrs,” the pope told the Orthodox patriarch, according to a Vatican statement…

Thousands of civilians freed from east Aleppo, 700 fighters lay down arms (RT) Over 13,000 civilians have been rescued from militant-held parts of eastern Aleppo in the past 24 hours, while more than 700 militants have laid down their arms and surrendered to the Syrian army. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov says that all of the liberated residents have been accommodated at aid centers, where they are being supplied with warm food and medical aid where needed…

ISIS withdraws from Syria’s Palmyra after Russian strikes (AINA) Russian war planes carried out over 60 strikes overnight on Syria’s Palmyra after Islamic State jihadists re-entered the famed ancient city, halting the offensive, Russia’s defense ministry said Sunday. On Saturday the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights monitor said IS jihadists, who were forced out of Palmyra in March, took most of the city back under their control and surrounded the airport…

Iraqis mourn destruction of ancient city of Nimrud (AINA) When ISIS swept into Mosul two years ago, Leila Salih begged the militants not to destroy the Mosul Museum, where she worked, or at the archaeological site at Nimrud, which she helped oversee, just south of the city. “I told them we would destroy the graves ourselves if they just left the buildings standing,” she told NBC News. “I begged them to save Iraq’s history.” But the pleas fell on deaf ears. Several videos released by the militants last year show ISIS fighters using sledgehammers, power tools, and bulldozers to demolish priceless sculptures and stone carvings. What they didn’t destroy with explosives they tore down by hand. Built three thousand years ago — and forgotten for centuries — the ancient city of Nimrud was the second capital of the Assyrian empire, which at its height extended to modern-day Egypt, Turkey and Iran…

Protests in Hungarian border village over new legal restrictions (Vatican Radio) Rights activists have expressed concern about a new local law introduced by a controversial mayor and politician near the Hungarian-Serbian border, banning the public expression of the Muslim religion as well as awareness-raising or other activities that empower homosexuals…



Tags: Syria Iraq Egypt Hungary

7 December 2016
Greg Kandra




Msgr. John E. Kozar speaks during an interfaith forum on the crisis for Christians in the Middle East at the Sheen Center in New York City on 5 December. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

CNEWA’s President Msgr. John E. Kozar was one of several prominent leaders of different faiths — including CNEWA’s chair, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan — who gathered in New York Monday night to discuss some of the threats facing Christians in the Middle East.

As CNS reports:

Christians in the Middle East face extinction because of genocide, wars and international indifference to their plight, according to panelists at a 5 December interfaith forum in New York.

A concerted multilateral effort to establish a safe haven for them while rebuilding their devastated homelands is preferable to massive permanent resettlement to other countries, including the United States, they said.

Twelve speakers at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture event explored “The Crisis for Christians in the Middle East,” with a particular focus on vulnerable Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq.

...Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said his organization works with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle East, an area not fully understood or appreciated by those in the Latin church. The charitable and health care efforts particularly by women religious in largely Muslim areas have been well-received, and Christians and others have gotten along well, he said. Nonetheless, there is much outright suffering and persecution, he said.

“Syria is an absolute mess, but the church is still there,” Msgr. Kozar said. Lebanon is at or close to capacity with refugees. Jordan has the greatest concentration of refugees in the world, but its camps are plagued with extortion and a gangland mentality. Christians are considered third-class citizens in Egypt and still suffer reprisals after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Christians in Kurdistan and Iraq face different challenges.

“We are accompanying Christians who believe that somehow Our Lord will accompany and sustain them. We try to bring a reasonable stability,” he said.

Msgr. Kozar and other speakers underscored the deep historic and cultural connection of the Christians to their lands. “There is a tug of war between the goodwill of people here in the West who want to welcome and adopt (the refugees) and presume it’s best to extract them from where they are, and the church leaders and most of the people who want to stay” in the region and return to their countries when it is safe to do so, Msgr. Kozar said. “Family, faith, and church are connected.”

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan holds an icon of the 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya as he speaks during an interfaith forum on the crisis for Christians in the Middle East at the Sheen Center in New York City on 5 December. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Cardinal Dolan offered the impassioned closing remarks:

“All of you,” he told those assembled, “have helped me keep a very solemn promise.” As archbishop of New York, he explained, many of his brother bishops from the Middle East frequently visit him, as do priests, religious women and men and lay faithful from those persecuted lands. And he himself, he added, has been honored to visit them in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

His brother bishops, he said, plead with him, “‘Please don’t forget us. We feel alone. We are desperate. We feel isolated.’

“And over and over again,” he continued, “I whisper to them, ‘We will not forget you; I promise.’”

“You have helped me keep that same promise, that we will not forget,” he told the preeminent group of scholars, civic officials, religious leaders and representatives of humanitarian organizations, as well as symposium participants.

“We have a God who is calling us to a sense of justice, we have a God who is calling us to advocacy and charity,” the cardinal said. “These people we can’t forget, my dear friends. They look to us as believers, they look to us as Americans.”

NET-TV from the Diocese of Brooklyn also covered the event. Check out the video report below.




7 December 2016
Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service




Palestinians walk past a shop selling Christmas decorations on 5 December near Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank. After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality had overtaken holiday cheer, people seem primed to finally feel some merriment in Bethlehem.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)


Even the Christmas decorations seem more cheerful this year in Bethlehem.

A new display of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh were about to alight at the main traffic circle on Manger Street, and a big white Christmas tree made of lights perched merrily next to them. The official Christmas tree in Nativity Square was a focus of great commotion as pilgrims and locals struck poses for photos and selfies on 5 December. A few days earlier, at the official tree lighting ceremony, the square was packed with hundreds of onlookers ready to welcome the Christmas season to the birthplace of Jesus.

After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality had overtaken holiday cheer, people seemed primed to finally feel some merriment in Bethlehem. In 2014, the summer Gaza war was still keeping away tourists, and last year a spate of stabbings and shootings overshadowed any hope of holiday cheer.

This year, the Israeli separation barrier construction continues to slowly creep around Bethlehem, creating an isolated enclave. There has been no real move toward a long-term peace agreement, nor any easing of travel restrictions or any significant improvement in the economic or political situations, but Palestinians are embracing what they can of the holiday spirit.

Storekeepers like Muslim Samer Laham, 37, whose front entrance displays rows of hanging Santa Claus hats, are putting out their Christmas wares and readying for the celebrations.

“People haven’t started buying the hats yet, but they will in a few more days,” said Laham confidently.

Ashraf and Shahad Natsheh, who are also Muslim, took the afternoon to come from Hebron, West Bank, to take pictures of their 10-month-old daughter Na’ara in front of the official Bethlehem Christmas tree with its life-sized creche and gold-colored ornaments.

“The atmosphere is definitely better than last year, the roads are open and there is more calm,” said Shahad Natsheh, 26. “We come to see the tree because it is beautiful.”

Ian Knowles, the British director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre on historic Star Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare into the city center, said although people are still a bit apprehensive about the general situation, “Christmas hope still flickers.”

Seeing the apparent defeat of Islamic State in several battles in Iraq and Syria has also brought a sense of optimism to the Christian community, which had harbored fears that they might be next if the militants were not stopped, he said.

“People here have family in Jordan and Lebanon, and they were feeling (that this) could happen to them,” said Knowles. “Now they are watching as Christians are slowly returning to their churches and celebrating Masses in the charred remains.”

Catholic tattoo artist Walid Ayash, 39, and his staff stayed up almost half the night cleaning his tattoo studio and barber shop and putting up Christmas decorations.

“Two days ago they lit up the Christmas tree in the city. Everybody is happy. The kids are happy. I have four kids and they are happy,” he said. “Last year it was very sad, the situation was bad, but we hope this year will be better than before.”

“I want to be happy with my family. I am very religious. I thank God I am in Bethlehem. We celebrate. My workers dress like Santa Claus and throw candy for the children. The kids will be here, the atmosphere will be happy. You know, it’s Christmas,” he said.

Cradling one of his white doves — “peace pigeons” as he has dubbed them — in his hands in their rooftop roost above Star Street, Anton Ayoub Mussalam, 75, who is Catholic, said everyone is waiting for Christmas.

From 1987 until 2015, he and his wife, Mary had not had permission to go to Jerusalem, where one of their daughters lives.

“Maybe there will be a happy Christmas,” Mussalam said. “We hope everyone will be happy. We hope there will be a small piece of peace. We need peace like we need food and water.”







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