In Jesus’s birthplace, Palestinian Christians mark Christmas behind a Wall

Just World Admin Blog, Human rights, Palestine, Peace resources

by Helena Cobban, JWE president

In 2019, the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem– many of them descendants of some of Jesus’s or his disciples’ first converts– spent their 58th Christmas under Israel’s hostile military occupation. Bethlehem’s mixed, Christian-Muslim population is encased more tightly than ever by the Israeli-built Wall, which prevents them even from making the four-mile journey to Jerusalem, where many of them have close family members, schools, or businesses to stay in touch with.

Last Saturday, I was blessed to take part in a simulcast church service held jointly in Washington National Cathedral and the Evangelical Lutheran Church “Christmas” Church in Bethlehem. It was a powerful and moving experience, as congregants in both locations participated in the traditional Service of Lessons and Carols, some of it in Arabic, some in English. The archived version of the simulcast can be viewed here.

Three of the five rooftop singers in Bethlehem

Later, I discovered this beautiful video that the Bethlehem Municipality made for Christmas last year. In it, five accomplished vocalists sing a special arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy”– while standing on a rooftop overlooking much of the city! Their sing evocatively in a mix of English, Arabic, and Italian as a drone camera records them from many angles.

Either of these two videos (or anyway, some excerpts from the simulcast one, which at present is unedited) could make a wonderful centerpiece for congregations or other groups wanting to understand the experience of Christian Palestinians more deeply.

Maryam, Joseph, and their donkey, handmade by young women from the East Jerusalem YWCA, 1988.

And before I dive a little deeper into the highlights of these two videos I want to re-up this blog post that I published here at JWE in December 2016: “The Story of Christmas told for everyone (especially my grandkids)”, which I hope you will also enjoy.

So first, the archived video of the simulcast church service:

This one runs at 1 hr 31 mins– but the first 25 mins of this version are all “technical prep”, so to have a good viewing of the whole service, you can just cut those out, leaving you with a video that runs just over one hour. You can also download the whole Order of Service here, which means you can follow along with everything.

One of the screens in the cathedral, where we could see what was happening in the Bethlehem church.

The technical people at both ends, by the way, are to be applauded for managing everything brilliantly. It was the first time I’d ever participated in any simulcast church service and by watching the big screens set up in our portion of the “choir” area of the cathedral, I was able to have a rich sense of worshipping “with” the participants in Bethlehem.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has a small sanctuary, and not a whole lot of seating space. But the front row of seats was filled with dignitaries from the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in the region, and the small brass band provided a couple of musical interludes.

Their pastor, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, spoke the opening words. “Christmas reminds us,” he said, “to look for God in a cave with a homeless family, to look where there are refugees… where there is a Wall.” (He is in the center in the photo at the head of this blog post.)

At our end, the congregation(s) were welcomed jointly by Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the Dean of the Cathedal, and Rev. Leila Ortiz, the Bishop of the Washington DC synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Part of the Washington DC congregation.

Washington National Cathedral is an airy, towering structure built along the lines of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Our whole congregation of around 200 people fit into the “choir” portion of the sanctuary, which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. We were also lucky enough to have an actual human choir of 16 members of the cathedral’s professional singing corps, who contributed some very moving hymns and carols.

… And, talking of people with great singing voices, do try to download and enjoy the video of the five Bethlehemites singing “The Little Drummer Boy”, if you get the chance.

Five wonderful Bethlehem vocalists, with their cityscape behind them.

These singers are, in order of appearance: Nathalie Murad, Fouad Moubassaleh, Milad Fatouleh, Amjad Khair, Fadi Ghattas. Nathalie sings in English, Milad in Italian, and the other three in Arabic. It is an exceptional a capella performance by these five, which clearly must have been recorded separately, given the lovely quality of the recording.

A view the drone-camera took from high up, looking down on the singers and the city streets beneath them.

If you scroll down in the comments under the video, you’ll find more details about the recording– and also, a translation into English of a portion of the words sung in Arabic by the fourth and fifth singers. The fourth singer is singing this:

The children of Christmas [(Bethlehem)] have two faces:
One face smiles; the other is sad.
Sadness comes out from their viscera;
It screams: We have famine.
No one’s listening.
And the scream is muffled [by the festivities].

And the fifth singer, this:

In a small cave, a poor child was born.
He proclaimed that great happiness is ahead.
That they will be “saved” from their sadness and pain.

As the Christmas season proceeds, according to both the Latinate and Orthodox calendars, I am pleased to be able to share with you these resources about the city of Jesus’s birth and some of the Christian people who still live there, despite all the hardships they face.