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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.