BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP) — US Vice President Mike Pence may have postponed his visit, but Palestinian Christians still say Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is spoiling their Christmas.
In Bethlehem, thousands plan to celebrate on December 24 and 25, including the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built on the site considered the birthplace of Jesus.
In good years the West Bank town is flooded with Palestinian and foreign visitors in the days before Christmas.
But in the weeks before festivities this year, the city has at times appeared almost empty of tourists — with nearby clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army keeping many away.
In the courtyard next to the church, a towering Christmas tree adorned with lights has had few visitors, apart from street vendors selling Santa hats and Palestinians taking selfies.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, told journalists Wednesday there had been a marked increase overall in religious tourists this year.
But since Trump’s declaration on December 6, “dozens” of groups had cancelled planned visits.
“Of course this created tension around Jerusalem and this diverted attention from Christmas,” he said.
Jane Zalfou, a 37-year-old Bethlehem Christian, said a lot of Christmas celebrations had been called off following the decision, which had “killed the joy” in the community.
“Music, fireworks and many other things have been cancelled,” she told AFP.
“What happened wasn’t a small thing — it is a big deal. The Palestinian people have been waiting for so long to have their rights.”
It was not clear what led to the cancellations, which were not limited to Bethlehem. On December 14, Ali Salam, the Muslim mayor of the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, canceled the city’s Christmas festival, saying in a statement, “The decision [by Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel] has taken away the joy of the holiday, and we will thus cancel the festivities this year.”
Salam reinstated the celebrations the following Saturday following an uproar.
Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up only around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s tourism ministry denies Christmas has been negatively affected, saying it is running free shuttles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for mass.
The ministry says it expects a 20% increase in Christian pilgrims over the course of 2017 compared to the year before.
Palestinians view Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, but Israel sees the city as its undivided capital.
Most of the international community does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, instead keeping embassies in Tel Aviv.
Palestinians interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in East Jerusalem, though the Americans deny this.
In his White House declaration December 6, 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 Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
In the latest international show of support for the Palestinians, the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday rejected the US decision on Jerusalem by a vote of 128 to nine, with 35 abstentions and 21 countries absent from the vote.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now boycotting the administration’s peace team, while the Hamas terror group that controls Gaza has urged a new violent Intifada uprising and urging Palestinians to confront soldiers and settlers and liberate Jerusalem.
Trump’s announcement was the fulfilment of a campaign promise which was particularly important to evangelical Christian supporters — with Pence included among them.
The evangelical Christian movement is overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, whose founding they see as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
Influential US evangelical Christian Laurie Cardoza-Moore said they want to see a third Jewish temple built in Jerusalem to help facilitate Christ’s second coming, but their support for Israel was based not merely on scripture.
“Like Judaism, Christianity believes that the Messiah will one day sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem,” she said in a statement to AFP.
The irony that American Christian support is one of the driving factors in Trump’s embassy move is not lost on Palestinian Christians.
They see their fate as part of the wider Palestinian community, which views Israel’s occupation as the largest problem they face.
Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said Christian Americans supporting Israel were ignoring the ongoing occupation of the Palestinians.
“The essence of the Bible is freedom, not slavery, liberation not occupation,” he told AFP.
“Unfortunately Trump and his people are sacrificing the Palestinian Christians for their political agenda.”
Palestinians from the West Bank need special permits to visit Jerusalem, which is divided from Bethlehem by Israel’s separation fence.
Georgette Qassis, a 65-year-old from Bethlehem wrapped in a blue scarf embroidered with the word Jesus in English, agreed.
“Who gave Trump the right? We did not,” she said. “The Palestinian people are here on this great land. They should have asked for our opinion.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.