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There will be only one decoration in Manger Square, Bethlehem — a nativity, destroyed

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem is quiet this year - no giant tree at the Church of the Nativity, no carols in Manger Square. Churches in the Holy Land officially canceled Christmas celebrations due to the war between Israel and Hamas. Joining us from Bethlehem is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Good morning.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So no celebrations. What is happening there in Bethlehem today?

DEROSE: Well, it's raining today, but when the churches here announced they were canceling Christmas, my first thought was, how do you cancel a religious observance? But it turns out that's not what they're doing at all. They're not having the big party with parades and bands in Manger Square in order to draw the world's attention to the situation of Palestinians, including the 200,000 Palestinian Christians who live in Gaza, in Israel and here in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

RASCOE: So how are they doing that?

DEROSE: Well, the churches here are still holding worship services as usual. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem is here in Bethlehem to say mass tonight at the Church of the Nativity. And here's what I learned about the particular way Palestinian Christians tell the Christmas story.

ISSA THALJIEH: When Jesus was born also was difficult situation, occupation - occupied Roman occupation. So nowadays, we face the same.

DEROSE: Issa Thaljieh is a parish priest at the Greek Orthodox congregation at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. He's standing in Manger Square, wearing a traditional black cassock.

THALJIEH: We have to preach about maybe hope, patience, not to be afraid because when the angels appeared for the shepherds, they told them to be not scared and afraid because there was born the prince of peace.

DEROSE: Christian leaders in Bethlehem talk this way, reading the Christmas story as their own story. They see it as one of imperial powers and forced migration, despair and death. Thaljieh fears all the current violence will mean fewer and fewer Christians in the Holy Land.

THALJIEH: We don't want to turn the church into a museum. We need to keep it alive with the living stones who live in Bethlehem.

DEROSE: One of those living stones is Inas Deeb, who teaches at the city's Dar Al-Kalima University. She's been instrumental in arranging for the one Christmas decoration in Manger Square.

INAS DEEB: A huge Nativity destroyed, which will resemble the Palestinian family. The Christ will also resemble the Palestinian children in Gaza.

DEROSE: The 7-meter-wide Nativity is in ruins. Shepherds climb piles of rubble. Jesus, Mary and Joseph huddle in the midst of destruction. Now, Israel and its supporters, of course, see the Gaza War as something forced on them by the Hamas attack on October 7 that killed over a thousand Israelis. They see Israel itself as a refuge for Jews, cornered by neighbors seeking to eliminate them, formed following the Holocaust. But it does maintain a military occupation in the West Bank, and its fight against Hamas has killed thousands of women and children, according to Gaza officials. And that's what resonates here. Deeb also sees a parallel to Gaza in the biblical story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

DEEB: The birth of Jesus was also threatened by Herodus, who ordered to kill children. And that's why Christ and his mother and father immigrated to Egypt. So this, in a very strong way, resembles what's going on now in Gaza. And the Christ himself is a refugee.

MITRI RAHEB: If you look for Jesus today, he is in Gaza.

DEROSE: Mitri Raheb is a retired Lutheran pastor and prominent theologian who's helped shape this school of thought that reads Christmas as a story about Palestinians. One of his books is even titled "Faith In The Face Of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes."

RAHEB: And remember when Jesus said, what you do to one of those little you have done to me?

DEROSE: Raheb says the war between Hamas and Israel is destroying the lives of so many innocent Palestinians, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. This Christmas, he prays for peace but not a vague peace, not a peace that just means the absence of war.

RAHEB: Peace means for the Palestinian people to have their liberty, their freedom, the possibility to reach the potential that God had for them to flourish.

DEROSE: The answer to that prayer, he says, isn't found by looking up at the sky. It's found on Earth, when Israelis and Palestinians look into each other's eyes and see not enemies but rather neighbors. And Raheb says it's found when the nations of the world insist that the shooting and bombing in Gaza and the West Bank stop.

RAHEB: Bethlehem gave Jesus to the world. I think it's high time for the world to give peace to Bethlehem.

DEROSE: A somber gift hoped for this Christmas.

RASCOE: NPR's Jason DeRose is still with us on the line from Bethlehem. Jason, what will be happening there tonight?

DEROSE: Well, as has been the case for centuries, there will be midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, but it's expected to be quiet, less crowded. Very few tourists are here because of the war. And Palestinian Christians who might have otherwise come to Bethlehem from all over the West Bank or Galilee to mark the birth of Jesus don't feel safe traveling.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Jason DeRose. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.