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Faithful pray for Holy Land peace as Gaza fighting dampens Christmas spirit

Fighting in Gaza cast a pall of gloom over Bethlehem on Christmas Eve Sunday, with Pope Francis paying homage to the West Bank city and bemoaning that “the clash of arms even today” prevents Jesus “from finding room in the world.”

Christmas celebrations were effectively canceled in the Palestinian city, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, where the top Catholic clergyman offered a message of solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza.

  • “Our heart goes to Gaza, to all people in Gaza but a special attention to our Christian community in Gaza who is suffering,” said Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.

He arrived Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, clad in a black and white keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

  • “We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough… violence generates only violence,” he said.

The region was plunged into war on October 7 when thousands of Palestinian terrorists led by Hamas burst into southern Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and carrying out other atrocities as Jews celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah.

Around 240 people were kidnapped, including women, children and the elderly, more than half of whom remain captive, including the remains of several killed in the attacks or after being abducted.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas, the terror group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, but scenes of devastation in Gaza, where the Israeli army claims combatants hide among civilians, and unverified claims by Hamas health figures of a death toll topping 20,000, have turned international public opinion against Israel. Hamas’s death toll figures do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 8,000 operatives from the group and allied terror organizations.

  • Around 240 people were kidnapped, including women, children and the elderly, more than half of whom remain captive, including the remains of several killed in the attacks or after being abducted.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas, the terror group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, but scenes of devastation in Gaza, where the Israeli army claims combatants hide among civilians, and unverified claims by Hamas health figures of a death toll topping 20,000, have turned international public opinion against Israel. Hamas’s death toll figures do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 8,000 operatives from the group and allied terror organizations.

“Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world,” Pope Francis said as he kicked off an evening mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

During the traditional Angelus blessing overlooking St. Peter’s Square at midday, the pontiff remembered those suffering from war, recalling specific fighting in Ukraine and Israel’s bombardment and siege of the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas’s attack.

  • “We are close to our brothers and sisters suffering from war. We think of Palestine, Israel, Ukraine. We also think of those who suffer from misery, hunger, slavery,’’ Francis said. “May the God who took a human heart for himself infuse humanity into the hearts of men,” he added.

In New York City, Cardinal Timothy Dolan reminded congregants to keep war-torn parts of the Middle East in their Christmas prayers before leading Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

  • “As we anticipate Christmas, our hearts always go to the Holy Land,” he said, referring to parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories. “The Holy Land is under a cloud, the Holy Land is suffering, the Holy Land is filled with violence and hatred and retribution. And this dulls and threatens to suffocate the joy of Christmas.”
  • Believers in Syria gathered in a country still suffering from the aftermath of a long civil war and suffocating economic blockade. Despite festive lights and Christmas decorations adorning houses and shopfronts in the capital Damascus, events in Gaza and ongoing battles in parts of the country have left the holiday atmosphere subdued.

In Yabroud, a city north of Damascus, worshippers gathered in the St. Constantine and Helen Cathedral to enjoy Christmas carols sung by the Joy Choir from Damascus.

  • “Everyone should try, with what the Lord has given them, to spread joy in order to help end this sorrow,” said Fadi Homsi, a member of the choir.

Festivities are usually held in Bethlehem, where faithful believe Jesus was born, but this year the city is almost deserted, with few worshippers around and no Christmas tree erected, after church leaders decided to forego “any unnecessarily festive” celebrations in solidarity with Gazans.

The town did away with its giant Christmas tree, marching bands and flamboyant nativity scene this year, settling for just a few festive lights.

In the center of town, a huge Palestinian flag had been unfolded with a banner declaring that “The bells of Bethlehem ring for a ceasefire in Gaza.”

  • “All Christmas celebrations have been canceled,” said Sister Nabila Salah from the Catholic Holy Church in Gaza. “How do we celebrate when we are… hearing the sound of tanks and bombardment instead of the ringing of bells?”
  • The Jordanian army said its air force had air-dropped aid to about 800 people sheltering at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in northern Gaza.

At a hospital in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where much of the fighting has been concentrated recently, Fadi Sayegh, whose family has previously received permits to travel to Bethlehem for celebrations, said he would not be celebrating Christmas this year.

  • “There is no joy. No Christmas tree, no decorations, no family dinner, no celebrations,” he said, while undergoing dialysis. “I pray for this war to be over soon.”

Europe steps up security

  • The fighting in Gaza also overshadowed celebrations in Europe, where reported fears of an Islamist attack forced worshippers and others to undergo extra security precautions.
  • Sightseeing-only visits were barred at Germany’s landmark cathedral in Cologne and Christmas Eve worshippers faced security checks to get into midnight Mass there Sunday as police responded to indications of a potential attack. Still, officials urged people not to shy away from holiday celebrations out of fear.

Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhaeuser greeted people attending services with a relaxed smile and an expression of thanks for police security efforts, a day after police descended on the cathedral and searched it with sniffer dogs. With several dozen officers on duty outside, he said it was “probably the most secure church service in all of Germany.”

  • In Austria, police said they also were stepping up security around Vienna’s churches and Christmas markets, apparently responding to the same intelligence about a potential threat. They did not give further information, but the dpa news agency reported without citing a source that the threat was from an Islamic extremist group.
  • Cologne’s towering cathedral, whose twin spires rise 157 meters (515 feet) high, is a major tourist destination visited by some 6 million people a year. It is home to the Shrine of the Three Kings, a gold- and silver-decorated casket said to contain the relics of the wise men described in the New Testament as paying homage to the newborn Jesus.
  • The European Union’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, warned December 5 that Europe faces a “huge risk of terrorist attacks” over the Christmas holidays due to fallout from the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Johansson provided no details about any police or security information that might have led to her warning.

Source: TOI