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Christmas Canceled in Bethlehem as Churches Mourn 20,000+ Palestinians Killed in Gaza

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In “mourning and honor” of Palestinians killed in Gaza, the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, has announced the cancellation of traditional Christmas festivities. In Bethlehem, we’re joined by the president of Dar al-Kalima University, Reverend Mitri Raheb. Reverend Raheb relates the story of Jesus, a refugee whose mother had no place to safely give birth, to the plight of displaced Gazans facing a dearth of medical care. “The Christmas story actually is a Palestinian story, par excellence,” he tells us, yet “we don’t hear the Christian community actually doing much about the atrocity happening in Gaza today.” As the world turns its back on the ongoing genocide, Rehab says he fears this could be “the end of the Christian presence in Gaza.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Christmas has been canceled in Bethlehem. As the death toll tops 20,000 in Gaza, we begin today’s show in the occupied West Bank — yes, in the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The Christmas season is normally a festive time in Bethlehem, but not this year, as church leaders have canceled public Christmas festivities, citing Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza.

This is the Reverend Isaac Munther, the Palestinian pastor of a landmark Lutheran church in Bethlehem. He addressed his congregation earlier this month in front of a nativity scene with the figure of Jesus Christ in a keffiyeh, surrounded by rubble.

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: [translated] Christmas is a ray of light and hope from the heart of pain and suffering. Christmas is the radiance of life from the heart of destruction and death. In Gaza, God is under the rubble. He is in the operating room. If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble. I invite you to see the image of Jesus in every child killed and pulled from under the rubble, in every child struggling for life in destroyed hospitals, in every child in incubators. Christmas celebrations are canceled this year, but Christmas itself is not and will not be canceled, for our hope cannot be canceled.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Reverend Isaac Munther, the Palestinian pastor of a landmark Lutheran church in Bethlehem. He spoke in front of a nativity scene with the figure of Christ surrounded by rubble, the baby Jesus.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis accused Israel of committing terrorism in Gaza, after an Israeli sniper shot dead two women — an elderly woman and her adult daughter who had tried to save her mother — at a Catholic church in Gaza City where they had sought refuge. It was the Holy Family Parish church.

Politico reports Israel recently attacked a church and a convent in Gaza, even though congressional staffers in Washington had urged Israel to protect the religious sites and gave them the coordinates of the churches.

We go now to Bethlehem, where we’re joined by the Reverend Mitri Raheb. He’s president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, Palestinian Christian theologian who’s authored many books, including Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, the People, the Bible.

It’s hard to say “Merry Christmas” to you, Reverend Professor Dr. Mitri Raheb. But I will ask you how you’re observing Christmas this year. Talk about Bethlehem.

REV. MITRI RAHEB: You know, it’s a very sad Christmas. I don’t think in my entire life I experienced so much sadness, but also so much anger about what’s happening in Gaza. As you said, the celebration — I mean, the festivities were canceled in Bethlehem, so you don’t have Christmas lights. You don’t have a Christmas tree in Bethlehem. There are no tourists coming, because of the war. And the people are not up for celebrations, because our people in Gaza, but not only our people in Gaza, also our people in the West Bank, we here in the West Bank, we’re experiencing apartheid, colonization by Jewish settlers. And, you know, the death toll’s, as you said, 20,000 in Gaza, but also even in the West Bank in the hundreds. And also the detainees, Palestinian detainees, within these 75 days in the West Bank are over 3,000.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said that the story of Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, is more relevant now than ever, even though you will not be having festivities around this.

REV. MITRI RAHEB: Correct, because the Christmas story actually is a Palestinian story, par excellence. It talks about a family in Nazareth, in the north of Palestine, that is ordered by an imperial decree of the Romans to evacuate to Bethlehem, to go there and register. And this is exactly what our people in Gaza has been experiencing these 75 days. It talks about Mary, the pregnant woman, on the run, exactly like 50,000 women in Gaza who are actually displaced. Jesus was born actually as a refugee. There was no place at the inn for him to be born, so he was put in a manger. And this is exactly what also the kids that are coming to life these days in Gaza are experiencing. You know, most of the hospitals are damaged, out of service, and so there is no delivery places for all of these pregnant women in Gaza. And then you have the bloodthirsty Herod that ordered to kill the kids in Bethlehem to stay in power. And in Gaza, over 8,000 kids, they have been murdered for Netanyahu to stay in power.

And you have this message that the angels declared here, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth,” which was actually a critique of the empire, because glory belongs to the Almighty and not to the mighty. And the peace that Jesus came to proclaim is not the peace, the Pax Romana, the peace that is based on subjugation and military operation, but on human dignity, equality and justice. And this is actually what we call for. And I have to say I find it really a shame that in this season, where every church hears these words, “peace on Earth,” that the United States is vetoing even a ceasefire. It’s a shame.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this report in Politico, “Congressional staff tried to protect Gazan churches by sending locations to Israel.” That’s the headline. Now, you’re in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, and this is about Gaza. “The Israeli military received and confirmed the coordinates of the church and covenant in Gaza, both of which aid groups say were later struck by rockets and snipers.” It goes on to say, “The Holy Family church in Gaza was struck last weekend. The location of the church was included on a list of coordinates provided to the Israeli military by aid organizations and staffers on Capitol Hill in an effort to protect those sheltering there.” We reported in the last few days, among others, about the mom, the elderly mother, and her daughter, who were sheltering at the Holy Family church. This is what the pope referred to when he talked about Israel engaging in terrorism. First, the mo was hit. The daughter carries her, and then she’s hit. This is Pope Francis speaking on his 87th birthday at the Vatican Sunday.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] And let us not forget our brothers and sisters suffering from war in Ukraine, Palestine, Israel and other conflict zones. May the approach of Christmas strengthen our commitment to open paths of peace. I continue to receive from Gaza very serious and painful news. Unarmed civilians are being bombed and shot at. And this has even happened inside the Holy Family Parish compound, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, and sick people with disabilities, and nuns. A mother and her daughter, Ms. Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter Samar Kamal Anton, were killed, and others wounded, by the snipers as they went to the bathroom. The house of Mother Teresa’s nuns was damaged, their generator hit. Some say it’s terrorism. It’s war. Yes, it’s war. It’s terrorism. That is why Scripture says that God stops war, breaks bows and breaks spears. Let us pray to the Lord for peace.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the pope speaking on his 87th birthday. I want to go on with this Politico piece. It says, “A church and a convent … were struck in Gaza … listed among Christian facilities congressional staffers had flagged to Israeli authorities for protection — according to a series of emails from October. The emails, which were obtained by POLITICO, show an increasingly frenzied back-and-forth between Catholic Relief Services — one of the largest Christian aid organizations in Gaza — and Senate staff over an effort to get a commitment from Israel to avoid targeting a number of buildings where its staff and civilians were sheltering.” They would ultimately be attacked. Reverend Mitri Raheb, your response?

REV. MITRI RAHEB: You know, Israel have been attacking churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, universities. Believe it or not, 11 universities were destroyed in this war. Over 200 schools were destroyed. Most of the hospitals, except nine, are out of service right now because of Israeli attacks on them.

But let’s come to the churches. You know, this is not the first attack, that happened last Saturday, that the pope talked about, because the first attack on a Christian institution happened to the Ahli Hospital, a so-called Baptist hospital, that belong actually to the Anglican Church. And then Israel had an airstrike on the Greek Orthodox church, Saint Porphyrius, where they destroyed fully the assembly hall of that church, where 50 Christians were having refuge. Twenty were killed, and 14 were injured. And then Israel destroyed a brand-new state-of-the-art Arab Orthodox cultural and social center. It costed $6 million. It was inaugurated just a few months ago. And it was made to rubbles. It doesn’t exist anymore. You cannot see it anymore. And then Israel attacked the Rosary Sister, another Catholic school.

This last week, they attacked — and the Pope spoke about it — actually a rehabilitation center for children with disability, that is run by the Sisters of Mother Teresa. And they attacked again last week the Ahli Hospital, that is now almost out of service, beside the sniper killing these two, the older woman with her daughter, within the Holy Family compound. And you know what? When some other parishioners in that compound wanted to go out to help them and to save them, Israel launched a missile on them, and 10 people from that parish were injured in that missile attack. I’m, on daily basis, in contact with those two parishes to see how they are doing. And I tell you, just a few hours ago, I received again another cry for help that that compound, the Holy Family compound, is surrounded by Israeli tanks, and Israeli snipers are all around on the rooftops of the neighboring buildings.

And this is just two days before Christmas. These are the Christmas gifts of Israel for the Christian community in Gaza. And I fear that this is the end of the Christian presence in Gaza. And, you know, the Christian presence in Gaza is a 2,000-years-old presence. I mean, these are not new converts. Christianity came to Gaza already in the first century. And throughout the last 20 centuries, there was a living Christian work there, and actually an affluent Christian community in Gaza. And I think this community is going to be extinct because of Israel war on Gaza. Three percent of the Christian community in Gaza was murdered in these 75 days. Three percent.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you — and we played this earlier in the week — the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, recently appearing on British news program LBC and claiming, in fact, there are no Christians in Gaza.

NICK FERRARI: Why is it necessary? It would — is reported to start shooting, having snipers outside a church.

FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: I don’t — I saw the report this morning. The church — there are no churches in Gaza. So I’m not quite sure where the report —


FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: — is talking about.

NICK FERRARI: There’s a Catholic Church in there, isn’t there? That is in —

FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Yeah, unfortunately, there are no Christians, because they were driven out by Hamas.

NICK FERRARI: Well, there are — respectfully, there are Christians, because I spoke to an MP yesterday who has family members in the church who are Christians.

FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Well, I don’t know what happened.

NICK FERRARI: Unless you’re telling me she’s wrong.

FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: I don’t know who was attacked. I didn’t see the report.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum speaking on the British news program LBC. Your response, Reverend?

REV. MITRI RAHEB: You know, I mean, we are unfortunately used to Israeli lies and fake news that they keep spreading. You know, how they cannot know that there are a Christian community in Gaza? I mean, you spoke before that they got the coordinates of the two churches, like they get also the coordinates of the hospitals. And remember, these Christians, every year, were applying for permits to come over Christmas to Bethlehem. So the Israeli authorities, they know everyone by name, by picture, by age, by gender. Again, but these are the lies.

And do you know why Israel can do all of this? Because they are impune. Nobody, because of the American veto, brings them, actually, and makes them responsible for what they are doing. And now they actually are destroying all of Gaza. And guess who will pay for it. They will call some Arab countries or Europe or others to rebuild Gaza. Once Israel is made responsible for its atrocities, they will stop doing that.

And for me, as a pastor, I have to say, you know, imagine — imagine if a synagogue was attacked and 20 Jewish worshipers in a synagogue were killed by an airstrike by any country. The whole Christian world will be in uproar. Unfortunately, we don’t hear the Christian community actually doing much about the atrocity happening in Gaza today.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Raheb, I wanted to ask you about your latest book, Decolonizing Palestine, which challenges the weaponization of biblical text to support of the current settler colonial state of Israel. That’s how it’s described. And I was wondering if you could comment on: Some of the most adamant supporters of the Israeli military are U.S. evangelicals, and some of the fiercest critics are progressive Jews, like Jewish Voice for Peace. And if you could comment on both?

REV. MITRI RAHEB: Yes. Actually, in this book, I try to show that, actually, the current state of Israel, in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, is actually a settler colonial project. And a settler colonial project means these are settlers, that they come, in this case from Europe mainly, to settle permanently in another country, not to live with the native people, but to replace the native people and to drive them out of their own country. And to do that, they have to create a policing state, and they have to demonize the native people as savage, as terrorists, as backwards, as human animals — as you are hearing from Israeli politicians right now.

And actually, if you heard Netanyahu when he said that the Israeli troops are entering Gaza, that same day in October, late October, he quoted the Bible and talked about Amalek. And that is from 1 Samuel 15:3, where God is telling Saul to go and extinct the whole Amalek community, not to spare man, woman, elderly, child, even ox and sheep. And so this is a call for genocide. And this is, again, a settler colonial tool, that was done in North America. It was done in South Africa. It was done in many other countries. So, what happened in the United States 400 years ago to the Native Americans is happening to Palestinians today in Gaza. So this is what I’m talking about.

And this weaponization of — the weaponizing of the Bible by Christian Zionists is something that is, for us, very troublesome. You know, for us, these Christian Zionists are actually antisemite, because they don’t love the Jewish people. They want all Jews to come to Palestine, according to their ideology, that two-thirds will be killed in a war, and the last third will convert to Christianity. So, basically, they are calling for the annihilation of the Jewish people. But Netanyahu has no problem to share bed with them, not out of love, but to fulfill selfish desires, so to say.

And I’m so glad that, actually, Netanyahu doesn’t represent the whole Jewish people. You know, Judaism is very broad, like Christianity and Islam. It’s a very broad religion. You have from the far right to the far left. And for me, groups like Jewish Voices for Peace, Not in My Names and many other groups that I’m in contact with them, they are a sign of hope that actually together, as Jews, Muslims and Christians who are interested in equality, in human dignity, in justice, so that both peoples can share the land and the three religions can live side by side. I think this is the vision that we are calling for.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Mitri Raheb, we want to thank you for being with us. Reverend Mitri Raheb is the president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, Palestinian Christian theologian who’s authored many books, including Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, the People, the Bible.

Coming up, the United Nations Security Council is preparing possibly to vote on a watered-down resolution on aid to Gaza, after the U.S. repeatedly pushed for delays even though the U.N. is warning more than half a million Palestinians, about a quarter of the population, face catastrophic hunger and starvation. Back in 20 seconds.

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