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Christmas in Bethlehem is somber due to the Israel-Hamas war

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Christmas morning in Bethlehem is somber, not the usual joyful town with parades and bands in Manger Square. Church leaders canceled celebrations there because of the Israel-Hamas war. Some Palestinian Christians say they are not celebrating when, according to health officials in Gaza, more than 20,000 people have been killed since Israel began its offensive after the October 7 Hamas attack on Southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people. Joining us now from Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is NPR's Jason DeRose. Good morning, Jason.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: So what is the scene like in Bethlehem this morning?

DEROSE: Well, Christmas cheer is definitely not in the air. There are about 200,000 Palestinian Christians who live in and around Bethlehem, the Galilee region and Gaza, and usually, crowds of them would be packed into Manger Square for celebrations on Christmas Day. Loudspeakers would be blaring carols, but now the mood is subdued, and Manger Square is essentially deserted this morning.

KHALID: And what have you been hearing from the people that you've spoken with?

DEROSE: Those I've spoken with bring up the war immediately. You know, Bethlehem is just 45 miles from Gaza. People here have friends and family there, and they say they just can't celebrate knowing conditions for people there. I met Kudi Zara in Manger Square. He's a 22-year-old electrical engineering student.

KUDI ZARA: In this war, and it's really bad days, you know? Even if we make some parties, we are not happy from our hearts, you know? But if Jesus is still in our heart, like, it will be happy.

DEROSE: As he says, it's the parties that are canceled, but people are still observing Christmas as a religious holiday. The Catholic midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity was full. I was at another worship service earlier last evening where the pastor said he wasn't expecting many people, maybe 25 or 30, but instead, the church was packed with about 200 people. So many, they were printing extra bulletins as the opening hymn began. In fact, mine was still warm from the printer.

KHALID: Wow. So it sounds like people are finding some solace in those worship ceremonies at this point. I understand, Jason, that the only Christmas decoration in Manger Square is a Nativity this year. Is that right?

DEROSE: That's right. But it's not your typical, cozy manger scene. It's this destroyed nativity statues of Mary and Joseph and Jesus encircled by razor wire. There's rubble everywhere, big pieces of broken concrete. The shepherd is turned away in despair. The artist who created this nativity is Tariq Salsa. He says he wanted to show the holy family as Palestinian refugees - oppressed, rejected, displaced.

TARIQ SALSA: (Non-English language spoken).

DEROSE: He says "pain is there as long as the occupation is there. If the occupation withdraws, then the pain is over."

KHALID: And, Jason, outside of Bethlehem, can you fill us in on the latest developments in Israel's war against Hamas?

DEROSE: Well, the United Nations says more than 80% of Gaza's population is now displaced. Over the weekend, health officials in Gaza say at least 70 people were killed on Sunday alone, and the Israeli military says it sustained some of its heaviest losses since the war began. Also, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Food is scarce. The U.N. says starvation is happening in Gaza, and clean water is a huge problem. The average person uses about 17 liters of water a day. Right now, the World Food Program says each person in Gaza is getting less than two.

KHALID: That is NPR's Jason DeRose in Bethlehem. Jason, thank you so much for your reporting.

DEROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.

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