Church leaders urge Holy Land’s Christians to ‘stand strong’

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Holy Land Christmas
A pilgrim lights a candle Dec. 17, 2016, in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza war, Christmas in Bethlehem and the Holy Land in 2023 will be one of solemnity, prayer and fasting, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem said. They called upon the faithful to forgo any "unnecessarily festive activities" and to "stand strong" with those facing the afflictions of war, focusing more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — Christmas in Bethlehem and the Holy Land this year will be one of solemnity, prayer and fasting as the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem called upon the faithful to forgo any “unnecessarily festive activities” during the Christmas season this year and to “stand strong” with those facing the afflictions of war, focusing more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas.

“Since the start of the war, there has been an atmosphere of sadness and pain. Thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children, have died or suffered serious injuries,” they said in a Nov. 10 statement on the “Celebration of Advent and Christmas in the Midst of the War.” “Many more grieve over the loss of their homes, their loved ones, or the uncertain fate of those dear to them. Throughout the region, even more have lost their work and are suffering from serious economic challenges.”

Israel launched a military assault on Hamas after Hamas terrorists from Gaza breached a security fence on the southern border with Israel Oct. 7. Thousands of heavily armed terrorists infiltrated the border and attacked some 22 civilian agricultural communities and cities inside Israel. Israel revised its official estimated death toll of the attack, lowering the number to about 1,200 people, down from the more than 1,400 initially cited, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry said Nov. 10. Almost 240 people, including babies and elderly, were kidnapped into Gaza.

Israel has continued with its military incursion against Hamas targets both on land and by air.

According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is governed by Hamas, more than 11,100 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7. Although there is no breakdown available distinguishing between Hamas members and civilians, the World Health Organization has said that most of the dead are women and children. Israel charges that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. As of Nov. 13, 4,609 children have been killed in Gaza.

Despite their repeated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence, the war has continued, said the church leaders in their statement.

Not normal times

They said that though the sacred Advent season is normally one of joy and anticipation in preparation for the celebration of Christmas including religious services as well as colorful public festivities, “these are not normal times.”

“We call upon our congregations to stand strong with those facing such afflictions by this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities,” the church leaders said. “We likewise encourage our priests and the faithful to focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas in their pastoral activities and liturgical celebrations during this period, with all the focus directed at holding in our thoughts our brothers and sisters affected by this war and its consequences, and with fervent prayers for a just and lasting peace for our beloved Holy Land.”

They also invited the faithful to “advocate, pray and contribute generously” as they are able for the relief of victims of the war and the needy.

Standing in support of those who suffer

“In these ways, we believe, we will be standing in support of those continuing to suffer — just as Christ did with us in his Incarnation, in order that all of God’s children might receive the hope of a New Jerusalem in the presence of the Almighty, where ‘death shall be no more, neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev 21:4),” they wrote in their statement.

Meanwhile, bishops around the globe joined prayers for peace in the Holy Land and condemned the violence.

On Nov. 10, the Australian bishops’ conference issued a statement titled “Praying for a Lasting Peace.”

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, president of the conference, said that “the Australian Catholic Bishops join with the Australian Catholic community in expressing our grief and anguish over the suffering of people in the Holy Land.”

Along with praying “for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land” and holding them “and their suffering in our hearts,” the archbishop called people of faith “to pray with us for a lasting peace and the triumph of human dignity,” encouraging the acts of charity “to provide for the material needs of people who are isolated and facing the greatest hardship. The need is urgent,” Archbishop Castelloe said.

In a powerful homily on Remembrance Day Nov. 11, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta condemned both “those who enacted the attacks which lead to the death of … innocent Israelis,” but also condemned those “who are causing the deaths of ten thousand Palestinians.”

In most countries, Remembrance Day is observed Nov. 11 to recall the end of First World War hostilities and honor the memory of those who served “and made the ultimate sacrifice” to preserve freedom.

Lamenting the number of children killed, Archbishop Scicluna questioned by what logic one could reason that those children were terrorists.

“There is a leader who has the power to end this conflict, but instead quoted the word of God,” the archbishop Scilcuna said in reference to a statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Oct. 30, when he said that “There is a time for everything. A time for peace, and a time for war.” Netanyahu said calls for a ceasefire are calls “for Israel to surrender” to terrorists and that a ceasefire would only be possible if all 239 hostages held by militants in Gaza are released.

In his homily, the archbishop urged his listeners not to forget the dignity of humanity, according to The Malta Independent, a national newspaper, adding that “we are currently living through a spectacle of barbarity and lack of humanity.”

“The tragedy is that those who have the veto in the U.N. Security Council are not doing their duty. Today it is our duty to remember and to not forget,” Archbishop Scicluna said.

The French bishops also addressed the Israel-Gaza war during their Nov. 3-8 Lourdes plenary assembly. The war in Gaza has many repercussions in France, where acts of antisemitism are reported daily.

“We call on all our fellow citizens, in France, not to give in to the simplistic logic of confrontation between religious communities,” Archbishop Éric de Moulins d’Amieu de Beaufort of Reims and president of the bishops’ conference said on Nov. 8. “The question of antisemitism has particular resonance for us Christians,” Bishop Pierre-Antoine Bozo of Limoges added, addressing the journalists.

“But we are also very touched by what hurts and bruises the Palestinians. We are not taking sides,” he said.

Judith Sudilovsky

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.