Palestinians mark Christmas amid Israeli restrictions

In the last fortnight, the Israeli military imposed roadblocks in the West Bank and stormed several Palestinian towns and villages. (Reuters)
Updated 25 December 2018

Palestinians mark Christmas amid Israeli restrictions

  • The city’s markets are usually bustling over Christmas, with thousands of foreign tourists attending religious celebrations and midnight mass, but this year traders complained that business was down

BETHLEHEM: Palestinian Christians celebrated Christmas despite Israeli restrictions. The city of Bethlehem adorned a Christmas tree in Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity is located. 

The square hosted a number of activities, including the establishment of Santa’s Village and celebrations for children and families. 

The city’s markets are usually bustling over Christmas, with thousands of foreign tourists attending religious celebrations and midnight mass, but this year traders complained that business was down.

In the last fortnight, the Israeli military imposed roadblocks in the West Bank and stormed several Palestinian towns and villages in search of Palestinians who opened fire on its forces. 

Marwan Salibi, a salesman at an antiques shop in Bethlehem, told Arab News: “We rely on the holiday period mainly, but this year we’re witnessing weak business activity. Insecurity is one of the important reasons.”

At this time of year, the city is visited by Christians from elsewhere in Palestine. “We visit Bethlehem every year, once or twice,” Sally Awwad, from the village of Zababdeh near the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank, told Arab News.

“I used to visit with my family, but now I’m with my friends from different cities. We buy souvenirs and pray in the Church of the Nativity,” she said.

“I always hope that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, becomes a free place to be visited by Christians from all over Palestine and the world. This doesn’t happen because we live under occupation.” 

In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the YMCA on Saturday lit up a Christmas tree for the first time in years at a ceremony attended by Christians and Muslims.

“After years of not lighting the Christmas tree in Gaza, we decided this year to celebrate with the Palestinians in Gaza in a small ceremony,” said Hani Farah, director of the YMCA.

Every year, Israel issues permits for some Christians in Gaza to travel to Bethlehem, but hundreds are prevented from attending midnight mass in the city. There are an estimated 1,000 Christians living in Gaza.

In early December, the city of Ramallah lit up a Christmas tree in a joyous atmosphere in Yasser Arafat Square.

“How wonderful to meet all of our great Palestinian people, to celebrate one of our national holidays in which we shine the glorious Christmas tree, to affirm our love for each other and that we’re people of peace in Palestine and Jerusalem, which includes Christian and Islamic holy sites,” said Archimandrite Elias Awad, patron of the Greek Orthodox Church in Ramallah.

“We want to send a message to the world that we’re a people who want peace, we have our rights, we look forward to the independence of our state, we salute our national and religious days without barriers and occupation.”

The YMCA lit up a Christmas tree in Jerusalem in early December, marking the start of celebrations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a message to the world on the occasion of Christmas: “We want (Jerusalem) to be an open city for worship for all believers and followers of all religions… and for our people to exercise their right to freedom of worship in their Christian and Islamic holy places.”


From Jeddah to Jerusalem, the faithful return to their mosques

Updated 01 June 2020

From Jeddah to Jerusalem, the faithful return to their mosques

  • Doors open again after virus lockdown
  • Internal flights resume from Saudi airports

JEDDAH/AMMAN: It began at dawn. As the first light appeared on the horizon and the call to Fajr prayer rang out, Muslims from Riyadh to Madinah and Jeddah to Jerusalem returned to their mosques on Sunday after a two-month break that for many was unbearable.

More than 90,000 mosques throughout Saudi Arabia were deep cleaned and sanitized in preparation for the end of the coronavirus lockdown. Worshippers wore face masks, kept a minimum of two meters apart, brought their own prayer mats and performed the ablution ritual at home.

“My feelings are indescribable. We are so happy. Thank God we are back in His house,” said Abdulrahman, 45, at Al-Rajhi mosque in Riyadh, where worshippers had their temperatures checked before entering.

Television screens inside the mosque displayed written instructions, including the need to maintain a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In Jerusalem, at 3:30 a.m. thousands crowded outside three gates assigned to be opened to allow Muslims to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque. Young and old, men and women, many with their phone cameras on, chanted religious songs as they waited to return for the first time since the virus lockdown began.

“Those wishing to pray were checked for their temperature and those without a mask were given one by Waqf staff. All were asked to stay a safe distance from each other when they prayed,” Mazen Sinokrot, a member of the Islamic Waqf, told Arab News.

Wasfi Kailani executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque told Arab News that enabling Muslims to pray in large numbers and according to health requirements had gone smoothly.

“People cooperated with the local Muslim authorities and followed the regulations.” The people of Jerusalem had shown a high degree of responsibility, he said.

Israeli police spokesman Miky Rosenfeld told Arab News that extra police units had been  mobilized in the old city of Jerusalem for the reopening of Al-Aqsa. 

“People arrived in the areas scheduled according to health and security guidelines,” he said.

Khaled Abu Arafeh, a former Minister for Jerusalem in the Ismael Haniyeh government in 2006, said people were happy to be able to pray once more at Islam’s third-holiest site.

“It is time to open a new page in cooperation with local institutions and with Jordan to regain all that has been lost over the years,” he told Arab News.

“The Waqf council has done a good job in dealing with the contradictions and pressures that they are under, which is like walking on a knife’s edge as they deal with the occupiers on the one hand and the health situation on the other, while also trying to be responsive to the desires of worshippers.”

Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, commercial flights took to the air again, office staff returned to work and restaurants resumed serving diners as life began a gradual return to normal after the coronavirus lockdown.

Eleven of the Kingdom’s 28 airports opened on Sunday for the first time since March 21. “The progressive and gradual reopening aims at controlling the crowds inside airports because we want to achieve the highest health efficiency,” civil aviation spokesman Ibrahim bin Abdullah Alrwosa told Arab News.

No one without an e-ticket will be allowed into an airport, face masks must be worn and safe distancing observed, and children under 15 may not travel unaccompanied.