In Bethlehem and Gaza, Christmas celebrations nixed over Jerusalem decision
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In Bethlehem and Gaza, Christmas celebrations nixed over Jerusalem decision

Only prayer services go ahead as politics and inclement weather leave Manger Square, usually packed with tourists, nearly empty on Christmas Eve

  • A man dressed as Santa Claus waves from a sidecar of a motorbike on Christmas Eve in Jerusalem Old City, Decemeber 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    A man dressed as Santa Claus waves from a sidecar of a motorbike on Christmas Eve in Jerusalem Old City, Decemeber 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • A worshipper prays inside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    A worshipper prays inside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Christian worshiper lights candles at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Christian worshiper lights candles at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives to the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives to the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Members of a Palestinian marching band parade during Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Members of a Palestinian marching band parade during Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Members of a Palestinian marching band parade during Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Members of a Palestinian marching band parade during Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Church and political officials in Bethlehem and Gaza canceled all non-religious Christmas celebrations in protest over the recent decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“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,” said Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman.

“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.

The controversial announcement by Trump earlier this month unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Christmas celebrations were restricted to religious rituals across the Palestinian territories in protest , the official Palestine TV reported Monday.

In the Hamas-ruled  Gaza Strip, the small Christian communities took the same measures, canceling the holiday celebrations except for prayers.

People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the town of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2017. (Musa AL SHAER / AFP)

The celebrations were also hampered by heavy rain on Christmas eve.

On Sunday afternoon hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square for celebrations, greeted by bagpipe-playing young Palestinian marching bands and scout troops. Accompanying the decorations was a large banner protesting Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

“Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine,” the banner read.

After nightfall, the crowds had thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to about 9 degrees C (49º F). Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other nearby buildings.

In normal years, thousands fill the square where musicians play and concerts entertain the crowds.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of Jerusalem and the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, crossed through an Israeli military checkpoint to enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem. His black limousine was escorted by a group of men on motorcycles, some of them wearing red Santa hats.

Pizzaballa, who last week rejected the US decision, tried to steer clear of politics. He waved to the crowd, shook hands and hugged well-wishers.

“Now it’s time to enjoy,” he said. “We as Christians will enjoy, despite all the difficulties we have. Merry Christmas.”

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads a Christmas midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 25, 2017. ( MUSSA QAWASMA / AFP)

But in his homily during midnight Mass, Pizzaballa prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and appealed to politicians “to have courage” to make bold decisions that respect all peoples. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, was among those in attendance.

“There is no peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude,” Pizzaballa said. “The mother, Jerusalem is our mother, loves all her children. If one is missing, the mother cannot be in peace.”

“We need vision,” he added. “And despite the many disappointments of the past and of the present days, with determination, do not abandon having a vision, but on the contrary, even more than before, let yourself be provoked by the cry of the poor and the afflicted.”

Girls wearing reindeer headbands stand outside the Roman Catholic Church of Holy Family in Gaza City on Christmas day on December 25, 2017. ( AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

Pizzaballa earlier said that said “dozens” of foreign visitors had canceled their Christmas trips after Trump’s announcement.

But Israel’s Tourism Ministry has said Christmas preparations have not been affected, and it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Gaza’s Christians have dwindled in number to around 1,500, most of them Greek Orthodox, out of a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 1.7 million. The Christian community in Gaza City, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, has been shrinking due to both conflict and unemployment.

Illustrative: Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, greets worshipers after a Sunday mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, Sunday, November 6, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

In an address December 6 from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. He described 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, but derided by the Palestinians and wider Arab and Muslim world. 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 response, the Palestinian leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza called for “days of rage” and urged confrontations with Israeli troops.

Israel took control East Jerusalem in the 1967’s Six Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in East Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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