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Israel-Hamas war means quieter Christmas observances for Orthodox Christians


More than 200 million Orthodox Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas this weekend. But in Gaza, the Israeli occupied West Bank and elsewhere in the Holy Land, churches have canceled holiday festivities because of the war. As NPR's Jason DeRose reports, the Israel-Hamas war means quieter observances this year.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: By mid-October, 23-year-old Maryan Saba, her husband and their baby daughter were sheltering at their home congregation, St. Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza City. They've only left the church compound once since then.

MARYAN SABA: We went out because we were desperate to know what...


DEROSE: She couldn't finish answering my question - I was in Tel Aviv - because of airstrikes near the church.

SABA: We lost a lot of our friends and family members. Most of the Christian people completely lost their homes, and I'm one of them, actually.

DEROSE: About 250 people, both Christians and Muslims, are seeking refuge at St. Porphyrius.

SABA: I'm going to say that I feel desperate to be happy.

DEROSE: An emotion she isn't able to feel, given the daily rocket fire.

SABA: Desperate to be able to celebrate Christmas with my whole family members without losing any one of them. And I just want us all to be one big, happy family celebrating Christmas, just like any other family around the world. Is it a lot to ask for?

DEROSE: More than 22,000 people have died in Gaza, according to health officials there, since Israel began its massive military response to the October 7 Hamas attack. To draw the world's attention to the situation in Gaza, churches in the Holy Land - Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox - asked their congregations not to put up trees or lights but, says Dimitri Diliani, to put the money they would have spent to better use. He's president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land.

DIMITRI DILIANI: I've asked that all the money that would have been spent on festivities to be donated to our brothers and sisters in Gaza. When I mean brothers and sisters, I mean Palestinian Christians, Muslims, atheists, whatever.

DEROSE: Delaney lives in East Jerusalem and wants the world to know that 200,000 Palestinian Christians still live in the region.

DILIANI: The whole presence of Christians in the birthplace of Christ surprises people. And this is how illogical the world has become when they think of Palestine and our cities.

DEROSE: Diliani is Orthodox Christian himself and says he's sad about there not being festivities in Bethlehem and Manger Square this weekend. But Christmas cheer feels wrong.

DILIANI: It's going to be dinner with family but with no Christmas tree, no celebrations, no Santa, nothing. Just Christmas dinner and a short prayer. And that would be it.

DEROSE: Of course, religious services will take place, but they'll be muted.

ISSA THALJIEH: Our sisters and brothers is dying. And small kids - they die daily.

DEROSE: Father Issa Thaljieh is parish priest at the Orthodox congregation at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

THALJIEH: This is why, actually, the churches and the municipality, the organizations around in Bethlehem - they said, we don't want to celebrate Christmas with these festivities, especially with what's happening.

DEROSE: Even the joy of Jesus' birth, says Thaljieh, is tempered by his community's suffering.

THALJIEH: We only need to pray for the Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, to send the message of peace and love.

DEROSE: A message, Thaljieh says, both the Holy Land and the world desperately need to hear.

Jason DeRose, NPR News, Bethlehem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM ASHBROOK'S "SOLACE") 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
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.