MS Risk Blog

Celebrating Christmas in the Middle East

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December 25th is a special day in the Christian calendar across the globe, including the estimated 12 million Christians of the Middle East. Prince Charles dedicated his annual Christmas message to religious persecution around the world. He opened by quoting a Jesuit priest from Syria who told him it’s possible there will be no Christians in Iraq within five years. This Christmas brought hope and joy to some in the region, but for many across the Middle East festivities are marred by violence and destruction, bleakness and fear.

In Iraq

In Baghdad, commercial streets such as Karada, al-Mansour, Palestine and Zaytouna are adorned with Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Zawraa park in the centre of the city is home to a giant, 85-foot Christmas tree donated by a Muslim businessman to help the Iraqi people ‘forget their anguish.’ Across the Iraqi capital, Muslims are celebrating Christmas in unity with the Christians. However, amongst the seeming unity in Baghdad, Iraqi officials say separate bombings in and around the city have killed at least 11 civilians and wounded 34 others.

In the recently liberated, ancient Christian town of Bartella, Christmas was celebrated for the first time in over two years. Hundreds of Christians travelled to the city in buses, coming mostly from camps for the displaced set up in the city of Irbil. As mass was celebrated, dozens of Iraqi and US security forces were on standby to protect worshipers at the historic, battle-scarred Mart Shmony Church. The church’s priest delivered a defiant message, ‘This is a message to the entire world that we Christians… are the inherent component of this country and we are staying.’ However, across Iraq many are unable to return to their villages liberated from IS. Tens of Thousands spent their Christmas living in tents in the freezing cold. Mosul’s Christians are celebrating their third Christmas in exile.

In Syria

Demographic expert Fabrice Balanche predict there are only 100,000 Christians remaining in Aleppo, less than half living in the city before the start of the war. This year, the remaining Christians in Aleppo celebrated under a giant Christmas tree lit up for the first time in five years.

In Israel and Palestine

Thousands descended upon Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. A celebrator said ‘Christmas is for all Palestinians, regardless of religious affiliation, and is part of our national identity.’ However, the tensions within the state remained high. In Jerusalem, the rabbinate has issued a letter warning dozens of hotels in the city that it is forbidden by Jewish law to erect a tree. Meanwhile, Palestinian protesters dressed as Father Christmas were met with tear gas as they attempted to demonstrate against restrictions on movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Some held signs saying ‘Santa Claus stands with Palestinian people’ during clashes with Israeli soldiers at Bethlehem’s checkpoint 300. Six people were injured.

In Jordan

Fuheis is usually at the heart of Jordanian Christmas celebrations, but this year its planned seasonal events have been abandoned following the deadly shootings in Karak. Elsewhere in the kingdom, Madaba and al-Hussen’s Christmas trees remain in darkness in mourning for the victims.