BETHLEHEM (AP) — It was a subdued Christmas Eve in the historic birthplace of Jesus on Sunday, with spirits dampened by cold, rainy weather and recent violence sparked by US President Donald Trump’s recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Crowds were thinner than previous years as visitors, particularly Arab Christians living in Israel and the West Bank, appeared to be deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces. Although there was no violence Sunday, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations in protest.
Claire Degout, a tourist from France, said she would not allow Trump’s pronouncement affect her decision to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
“The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land,” she said. “Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says.”
By midafternoon, hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square near the city’s main Christmas for celebrations, greeted by bagpipe-playing young Palestinian marching bands and scout troops.
But after nightfall, the crowds had thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to about 9 degrees (49 F). Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other nearby buildings.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said celebrations were toned down because of anger over Trump’s decision.
“We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals as an expression of rejection and anger and sympathy with the victims who fell in the recent protests,” he said.
“We want to show the people that we are people who deserve life, deserve our freedom, deserve our independence, deserve Jerusalem as our capital,” he said.
In a December 4 address from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.
The move was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.
Next to the central Bethlehem square was a poster that read “#handsoffjerusalem.”
James Thorburn, a visitor from London, said he was determined to enjoy the holiday and show solidarity with Bethlehem’s residents.
“I know that a lot of people did cancel,” he said. “I felt I should come to support the Palestinians.”