It was a subdued Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Sunday, with spirits dampened by cold, rainy weather and recent violence sparked by US President Donald Trump’s recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Crowds were thinner than previous years as visitors, especially Arab Christians living in Israel and the West Bank, appeared to be deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces.
Although there was no violence on Sunday, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations in protest.
Claire Degout, a tourist from France, said she would not let Trump’s pronouncement, which has infuriated the Palestinians and drawn widespread international opposition, affect her decision to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
“The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land,” she said. “Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says.”
Trump on Dec. 6 abandoned decades of US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and saying he would move the US embassy to the holy city.
Trump said the move merely recognizes the fact that Jerusalem already serves as Israel’s capital and that he was not prejudging negotiations on the city’s final borders.
However, Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, saw the declaration as unfairly siding with Israel.
On Thursday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject Trump’s decision. The Old City, in east Jerusalem, is home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
The announcement triggered weeks of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including near-daily clashes in Bethlehem, which lies just south of Jerusalem.
By midafternoon, hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square near the city’s main Christmas 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.
However, after nightfall, the crowds had thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to about 9oC. Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other nearby buildings.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said celebrations were toned down due to anger over Trump’s decision.
“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,” he said.
Next to the square was a poster that read “Manger Square appeal” and “#handsoffjerusalem.”
“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.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of Jerusalem, 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 we 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 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,” he said.
“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.”
James Thorburn, a visitor from London, said it was important to enjoy the holiday and show solidarity with Bethlehem’s residents.
“I know that a lot of people did cancel,” he said. “I felt I should come to support the Palestinians.”
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