Through the Christmas holiday, Israel continued its relentless bombardment and siege of the Gaza Strip that has seen over 20,000 Palestinians killed. In the West Bank, we speak with Reverend Munther Isaac, pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, which canceled Christmas festivities in the storied birthplace of Jesus to mourn the deaths in Gaza and received worldwide attention for their nativity scene depicting the baby Jesus surrounded by rubble. “Christianity started here and never ceased to exist here,” says Isaac. “This is what Christmas is in Palestine: displaced families, destroyed homes and children under the rubble.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Juan González in Chicago.
“Christ in the Rubble.” That was the name of the Christmas sermon we just heard from the Reverend Munther Isaac, the pastor of the landmark Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. Reverend Isaac’s church gained international attention for creating a nativity scene with the figure of baby Jesus in a keffiyeh, surrounded by rubble.
Over the Christmas weekend, Israel carried out raids across the West Bank, including in Bethlehem, in Jenin, Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah. The Reverend Munther Isaac joins us from Bethlehem, where Christmas festivities were canceled this year to mourn the more than 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza.
Reverend, welcome to Democracy Now! I wish I could wish you happy holidays, but they are far from happy this year. I’m wondering if you can talk about the message we just heard. It was clear it was not just for your congregation in Bethlehem, not just for the Occupied Territories and Israel, but you were really sending out a message to the world, and particularly talking about the United States. Why you feel where we are talking to you from, where you just recently were, is so important when it comes to the almost 21,000 Palestinians dead since October 7th, since the Hamas attack on Israel?
REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Yeah. Good morning. Thank you for having me.
This was a service we held the day before Christmas for Gaza, and it was Jesus under the rubble, from Bethlehem to the world. And as I said in the introduction, we are broken, as Palestinians, by the magnitude, the horrific killing of our people in Gaza. But I also wanted to speak not just for the people of Gaza, for all Palestinians, who are appalled by the silence of the world and the dehumanization that has been taking place of the Palestinian people, especially those in Gaza, the dehumanization that allows such atrocities to take place with the world watching, and with Gazans themselves filming their own execution.
We are really tired and troubled from seeing, day after day after day, images of children and families being pulled from under the rubble. We can’t understand how the world is OK with this. And as a pastor who regularly speaks with churches around the world, I can’t understand how we can preach the gospel of love and justice, while ignoring and, in some cases, justifying what is happening in Gaza. It’s unfathomable to me and to many Palestinians.
And as such, I felt the need to deliver such a message with very direct and clear language. This is not the time for soft diplomacy, especially with the genocide still happening day after day after day. And I’m grateful for those who enabled us to broadcast this service to the world. And I am grateful that it is reaching. It’s not that we’re going to stop what’s happening in Gaza. I wish we could. We’re trying all we can through messaging and lobbying. But I hope that people will feel the weight of responsibility that they have. And I’m talking about not just Western government. Many churches, they have enabled what is happening right now in Gaza. And I felt we need to send this message.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Reverend Isaac, you mentioned that you were recently in the United States. You went to Washington, D.C., with a group of Christian leaders from Bethlehem. You spoke to congressional leaders. And you also delivered a message to the White House — a letter to the White House. What was your sense of how the political leaders in this country are regarding what’s going on there right now in the — with the Israeli attacks on Gaza?
REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: We received a mixed reaction. But I left really depressed. And clearly, back then, we saw the intention and that as if everybody has given in to the idea this war is going to last for long.
I left with several impressions. A lot of it has to do with how unwilling to even have a good conversation some congressmen — I’m talking about their staff — are willing, you know, to do. I mean, you share from the heart of our suffering and pain, and then you just get the response, “Well, Congressman so-and-so or Senator so-and-so has made it clear that this war wants to continue.” And they speak with so much distance from the fact and also almost with lack of empathy whatsoever.
When we met in the State Department and the White House, to be honest, you know, they understand the details of what’s happening. When I told them that this war is definitely not bringing any results other than killing innocent people, you know, they seemed to agree. But they seemed to have, as I said, given in to the idea that this war must continue. And I was — you know, I challenged them: “How do you allow such a government in Israel, such leaders, to drive you into committing a genocide?” I can’t understand it, especially with some of the, quote-unquote, “ideals” many of these American politicians keep bragging about or calling for. Yet when it comes to the Palestinians, it seems no one is willing to extend these human rights and international principles to us.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you lay out the significance of Palestine for the Christian faith? It’s not only the birthplace of Christianity, but also the site of several key events described in the Old and New Testaments.
REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Yeah, Palestine is where it all started. And in addition to the sites themselves that church fathers have called the fifth gospel, meaning that the geography speaks about what happened here over the years, I think we have to realize that Palestine also hosts the oldest Christian tradition in the world. Christianity started here and never ceased to exist here. So, not only is this the land where it all started, this is the land that continued to witness nonstop and give the Christian message.
We always emphasize that Palestine without the witness of its people means nothing. And I hate to see Palestine one day turned into a museum of holy sites for these Western pilgrims who come and visit only interested in certain sites that relate to the Scriptures, without acknowledging the presence of people, without acknowledging the presence of a church that has long carried the Christian witness in Palestine for 2,000 years. But, sadly, we continue to be ignored.
And I think even Palestine, apart from being the destination for pilgrimage, is somehow — you know, people view the biblical land as somehow a mythical land, a land from another universe. You know, we just celebrated Christmas, and millions sang about Bethlehem and read about Bethlehem. I wonder if they know that Bethlehem is a real city, in Palestine, with people, with a long cry for justice. But it seems that, you know, for some reason, people don’t make that connection and are not as much concerned with the plight of Palestinian Christians and even Middle Eastern Christians.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Isaac, can you describe for us — half of our audience is television; they see the nativity scene. Half is radio; they cannot see it. Can you describe the nativity scene that was right next to you as you delivered your Christmas sermon? Describe it in detail and why you chose to do this this year, as Christmas celebrations were canceled in your city of Bethlehem.
REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: So, we created this nativity scene earlier this month, in the beginning of the Advent season, from rubble, bricks, that resemble a destroyed house. So it’s a pile of bricks that resemble a house that was bombed. And on top of it, surrounded by bricks, we had baby Jesus. And the characters in the — usually in the manger, the shepherds and the magis, are all outside, surrounding the rubble, watching in as if they’re looking for any sign of life, looking for Jesus. And we’re sending a message that Jesus is under the rubble.
We created it because this is what Christmas looks like in Palestine today. But we created it because, you know, there is a strong message we wanted to send from it, which is that in a time when the world continues to justify and rationalize the killing of our children, we see the image of Jesus in every child pulled from under the rubble.
These have been very difficult times for us as Palestinians. We ask difficult questions, including: Where is God in the midst of suffering? And I’ve been saying God is under the rubble. God is with those who suffer. God suffers with us. So, with Christmas coming, the connection to me was natural: Jesus as a baby who survived a massacre, Jesus as a baby who became a refugee with his family to Egypt, identifies with us in our suffering. He was born with the marginalized. So the connection was natural.
And we created this manger to send a message to the world: This is what Christmas means to us as Palestinians. It was a message to our people. I know that everyone saw it in the international media, and it resonated with — I mean, it created maybe a shock to many. But for the Palestinians, it sent a very strong message. And many, many Palestinians reached out to us, to our church and to myself, thanking us for explaining the true meaning of Christmas, for sending a message of comfort and hope in the midst of very, very difficult times.
And so I spoke even in my sermon that this manger somehow resembles our resilience as Palestinians. From the midst of destruction, we will rise. And I’m convinced of that. It sounds so dark right now. We’re traumatized. I mean, honestly, we’re traumatized as a people. And I can’t even think of the people of Gaza. But I know that we will rise.
And I’m pleased that this manger was able to bring a small sense of hope to our people, but that it also sent a powerful message to the world about the reality in Palestine. This is what Christmas is in Palestine: displaced families, destroyed homes and children under the rubble.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Munther Isaac, I want to thank you for being with us, Palestinian Christian theologian, pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He titled his Christmas sermon “Christ in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament.”
When we come back, we look at how a growing number of U.S. labor unions are calling for a Gaza ceasefire. Back in a minute.