A celebration of Christianity, unity, and nationalism

The author of this post, Elizabeth Marteijn, is currently a PhD candidate in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. Her research brings together the methods of theology and ethnography in her doctoral study on Palestinian Christianity.

It’s heavy raining at 9 pm in the evening – the time people are entering the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem. People are rushing,pushing and shouting. Palestinian soldiers with guns try to keep order. A German man gets angry when people keep pushing, but a soldier says it’s not up tohim to keep order. It continues to rain very hard. Water is pouring from thesky and stays down at the street. The atmosphere is grim on this dark and cold Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

Field note, 24th of December 2017
Scouts parade through the streets of Bethlehem. Note the interesting cultural mix of clothes: Scottish bagpipes refer back to the British Mandate in Palestine (1920-1948), the white with black fishnet patterned keffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Photo credit: Elizabeth Marteijn

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

The morning was festive. It is the tradition that all Palestinian Scouts parade through the streets of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. The afternoon was busy for Noor, as she had just prepared lunch for the family of her daughter-in-law. Noor told me that Christmas is different than other years. ‘The spirituality of Christmas is low this year’, she explained.

I wrote this field note nearly one year ago, while conducting ethnographic fieldwork among the Palestinian Christian community in the West Bank.[1] I shared my umbrella with Noor, a local Bethlehemite in her fifties, but we still became wet of the rain, squeezed between the bodies of other Palestinians, religious tourists and the frustrated soldiers. We had spent the day together. Noor and her husband have been living in Bethlehem all their lives, and both are parishioners of the Roman Catholic community of Saint Catherine’s Church, located right next to the Basilica of the Nativity at Manger Square.

Political problems could always affect the religiosity of local Christians, but US President Trump’s announcement just before Christmas had a very unhappy timing.  

After several cheery celebrations at the Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in the first days of December, United States President Donald Trump gave an announcement on Wednesday, 6 December 2017, to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declaring Jerusalem ‘the eternal capital of Israel’.

‘Trump’s statement caused a wave of sadness, frustration and most of all disappointment among us. It is like we are loosing our hope in a time we ought to be joyful’, said Noor, referring to the time of Advent.

The next day after Trump’s announcement, the Palestinian government declared a day of mourning: schools, universities, shops and government buildings were closed. If someone dies, the whole Palestinian family enters a period of mourning, and they will not celebrate birthdays, attend marriages, nor celebrate Christmas for a whole year. Losing Jerusalem also meant that Christmas celebrations would be minimal. Palestinians felt they were about to lose their holy city, a part of themselves, as they would when a family member dies.

Bethlehem was full of banners and signs saying ‘Alquds aasimat Falastien’ (Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine), and leaflets were being handed out during the parade in the morning. Traditionally, choirs from all over the world travel to Bethlehem to sing on Manger Square, but this year the celebrations were cancelled. Earlier in the month, Christmas lights were switched off to show Palestine was in mourning. It was illustrative that it was raining so hard on Christmas Eve, on the time that Christians attend the Christmas Eve service at Saint Catherine’s Church or other churches in Palestine. When it also rained on New Year’s Eve, some Palestinian Christians could not help but think that God was giving them a sign.

A Christmas tree is lit in Taybeh, a Christian village on the West Bank. Palestinian flags are visible in the background, both held by the scouts on top of the tree.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Marteijn

A Palestinian Christianity marked by politics

Christmas 2017 offers a clear example how Christianity, politics and nationalism are intertwined in Palestine. Palestinian Christianity has a long history of nationalism. For example, Greek Orthodox Christian George Habash (1926-2008) founded the guerrilla force the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1967. Other national political liberation movements, like the Al-‘Ard Movement and the Abnaa al-Balad Movement, had Christian founders as well. Anglican politician Dr Hanan Ashrawi (b. 1946) participated with the Palestinian delegation in the peace process.  

Church leaders are known for their political involvement as well. On Friday the 22nd of January 1988, one month after the eruption of the First Intifada, the patriarchs and bishops of Jerusalem issued their first joint statement against the Israeli occupation. These statements are still issued till today.[1]On the same day as Trump made his announcements, the heads of churches sent a letter to President Trump saying: ‘Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm’.

On the same day as Trump made his announcements, the heads of the churches sent a letter to President Trump saying: ‘Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm.’

Political unrest also fomented the recent emergence of Palestinian contextual theology, mainly developed from the1980s.[3] The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 not only impacted the region politically, but it also changed methods of thinking and religious concepts, like violence in the Old Testament, God’s covenant with the Jewish people, and the identity of Jesus and his connection to Judaism.

The first written attempt of a Palestinian theologian was made in 1984, when Melkite priest Elias Chacour (b. 1939) published his first book.[4] Chacour is from one of the destroyed Christian Palestinian villages in the North of Israel, Kufr Baram. He produced a narrative theology, based on his own personal story of displacement, and formulated a theology about the Palestinian connection to the land

Palestinian contextual theology developed as a politically and socially committed enterprise. In 1987 the Al-Liqa’ (Encounter) movement emerged. From their first conference in 1990, Naim Ateek and his organisation Sabeel (The Way) developed a Palestinian liberation theology movement. In December 2009, another movement grew out of the Kairos Palestine Document, patterned on its South African counterpart of1985. Theologians such as Michel Sabbah (b. 1933), Rafiq Khoury (b. 1943), Munib Younan (b. 1950), Geries Khoury (1952-2016), and Mitri Raheb (b. 1962) have produced theological books and sermons based on their identity as Palestinian Christians, and influenced by the political context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Political involvement is also visible beyond the theological and clerical centres. The yearly Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Taybeh was organised a week after Trump’s announcement on Thursday, 14 December 2017. Taybeh is a picturesque Christian village of about 1300 inhabitants, located about 10 miles Northeast of Ramallah. The song that opened the ceremony is well-known song on Jerusalem by Fairuz (1967). The parish church was fully packed, but it went totally silent when one of the Rosary Sister’s angelic voices filled the church:


La’ajleyki ya madinat as-salat aasolii

La’ajleyki baheyet al masaaken

Ya Zahrat al madayen, ya Quds ya Quds ya Quds

Ya madinat as-salat aasolii

3yoonna 3laykii taraHalu kulli yawm.

It is for you, O city of the prayer that I pray. It is for you, O splendid home, O Flower of the cities, O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem O Jerusalem, O city of the prayer, Our eyes are set out to you everyday.[5]

Both Emeritus Patriarch Michel Sabbah and Taybeh’s parish priest Father Johnny Abu Khalil delivered flaming speeches about the status of Jerusalem. The parade of Taybeh’s scouts included banners with the slogan ‘Alquds aasimat Falastien’, like the parade on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Both in the centre and in the periphery, Palestinian Christianity and Palestinian nationalism go hand in hand. 

Church leaders bless the tree at the recent Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Bethlehem. In the centre with the microphone is Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo, Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem. Photo credit: Latin Patriarchate Jerusalem

Christmas tree as Christian and political symbol

Later that month, I travelled from Taybeh to Ramallah to speak with Father Jamal Khader, Roman Catholic parish priest of the Holy Family Church and member of the Kairos Palestine group. To reach Ramallah, I had to cross the DCO checkpoint. It’s Friday afternoon, and there are clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army. Stones are thrown and the smoke of burned car tires is visible from afar. Father Jamal Khader commented:

‘Trump declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel with the Christmas tree behind him, was awful to watch for me. It was awful! And then Vice-President Pence, how he was talking about saving the Christians from Muslim persecution… Talking about Jerusalem as eternal city according to the Bible, that is dangerous speech.’ [6]

The fact that President Trump, as a leader from a prominent Christian majority country, gave his announcement in front of a Christmas tree was difficult for many Palestinian Christians to swallow. Although the Christmas tree might not be more than a festive decoration in Western countries – a Victorian invention – it is a symbol of Christianity in the Middle East. During my fieldwork in the village Taybeh, all Christian houses were fully decorated for Christmas – except for those houses where a family member had recently died.

Church leaders are not excluded from the Christmas-tree mania either. Church leaders sit on the front row during the yearly Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Manger Square in Bethlehem and bless the tree just before it will be lighted. As a religious minority of 1.7% in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Christmas tree is a symbol of the visibility of Christianity. During the Christmas period, politically themed images are distributed with Joseph and Mary, Jesus or with Santa Claus. Although they are produced in a wide variety, it all professes the same message: God is at the side of the Palestinians.Thus, it was difficult for the local Christians to see a Christian leader like President Trump, making such a controversial announcement in front of a Christmas tree. Their Christian symbol was, maybe unintended and unconsciously, used as a political symbol saying the opposite: God is at the side of Israel.

Father Jamal Khader speaks the opinion of many Palestinian Christians, when he says that he as local Christian wants to distance himself from Trump’s type of political Christianity. The rhetoric of Christian persecution is unpopular among local Christians as well. It portrays Palestinian Christianity outside the realm of political involvement and puts them in boxes, like ‘a threatened form of Christianity’, ‘a Christian neighbour to the Muslims’, or ‘a minority in need of help (from the West)’.

In fact, Palestinian Christians have a good relationship with the Palestinian Authority. As response on Trump, President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about an ‘Arab Christian-Muslim Jerusalem’. He drew from the rhetoric of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, who was known for this discourse of a united Palestine of Christians and Muslims.

Every year around the Christmas and Easter celebrations, a media ritual takes place, as journalists publish stories about how these holidays are celebrated in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.[7] These news features cover the separation wall, the ongoing migration, the Christian-Muslim dynamic, and the Israeli occupation. The tone is usually pessimistic, and the story is never stripped of politics.

Similarly, Palestinian church leaders and theologians have used the holidays as a time to send their message to their communities and to the world. Christmas 2018 is yet again marked by the politics and struggle. The church leaders and activists of Kairos Palestine address their Christmas message this year as a new hope for Palestine, the Middle East and the World. ‘Then the joy of Christmas will be fully realized in Bethlehem, where God’s mystery still touches the Earth alongside human oppression and the pain of the oppressed’.[8]

Kull sana wa inta salaamien!

Wishing you all a peaceful Christmas!

[1] Fieldwork was conducted for twelve months between August 2017 and August 2018. The researcher was based in the Palestinian Christian village Taybeh. All names mentioned in this text have been changed in order to protect the identity of the research participants, except for public figures such as the church leaders and political leaders. Photographs are the property of the author, unless otherwise stated.

[2] For an overview of the statements from 1988 till 2008, see: Melanie A. May, Jerusalem Testament:Palestinian Christians Speak, 1988-2008. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010).

[3] See: Munther Isaac (ed.), Madkhal ilä l-lahoot al-Falastini (Introduction to Palestinian Theology). (Bethlehem: Diyar Publisher 2017).

An earlier and thorough analysis of Palestinian theology, see: Uwe Gräbe (1998), Kontextuelle Palästinensische Thelogie: Streitbare und Umstrittene Beiträge zum Ökumenischen und Interreligiösen Gespräch. (Erlangen: Erlanger Verslag für Mission undÖkumene).

For a recent overview on Arab contextual theology in English: George F. Sabra, “Theology” in Kenneth R. Ross, Mariz Tadros and Todd M. Johnson (eds.), Edinburgh Companion to Global Christianity:Christianity in North Africa and West Asia. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 325-334.

[4] Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers. The Dramatic Story of a Palestinian Christian working for Peace in Israel. Updated Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003).

[5] These are the first four lines from a song by a well-known Lebanese Christian singer, Fairuz, ‘Zahrat al madayen’.

[6] Personal interview with Roman Catholic priest Fr.Jamal Khader conducted on Friday 21st December 2017 in his office of the Holy Family Church in Ramallah.

[7] For a critical analysis of how Palestinian Christians are represented through American media, see Amahl Bishara, “Covering the Christians in the Holy Land,” Middle East Research and Information Project 43:2 (2013), pp.7-14. URL: https://www.merip.org/mer/mer267/covering-christians-holy-land.

[8] Michel Sabbah, ‘Preface: Christmas Message from Bethlehem 2018’, in Christmas Alert 2018. (Bethlehem: Kairos Palestine, 2018), pp. 4f.