West Bank: Sombre Bethlehem marks Christmas with vigil as bombs rain on Gaza
Palestinian Christians held a sombre Christmas vigil in Bethlehem on Saturday, with candle-lit hymns and prayers for peace in Gaza instead of the usual festive celebrations at the spot where Jesus Christ is believed to be born.
Most years Bethlehem basks in the central place it holds in the Christian story of Jesus' life, born there in a stable because there was no room for his parents at the inn, and placed in an animal's manger, the humblest of all possible beds.
Some 2,000 years later, pilgrims usually flock to the reputed location of that stable in Bethlehem's Byzantine-era Church of the Nativity, where most Christmases there are joyful displays of lights and trees in Manger Square.
But with Israel's brutal military campaign in Gaza having killed more than 20,000 people - including thousands of women and children, the mostly Palestinian population of Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank are in mourning too.
Additionally, Gazans are also subject to a complete siege where essentials such as food, fuel and water have been completely cut off, while Israeli forces have ramped up their violent raids in the West Bank, killing over 300 Palestinians since October 7.
This year they decided to have no large tree, the usual centrepiece of Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations because of the carnage taking place only 50km (30 miles) away.
And in place of the usual nativity scene, as Christians call the traditional display of figurines representing the holy family, Bethlehem churches this year placed the models amid rubble and barbed wire in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
"Bethlehem is a message. It is not a city, it is a message of peace to the whole world. From this sacred place we convey a message of peace stop the war, stop the blood, the killing and the revenge," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, a friar at the vigil.
Christians make up around 2% of the population across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories, according to Protecting Holy Land Christians, a campaign organised by the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, with a smaller proportion in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the war, ongoing for over two months, has kept away the majority of expected foreign tourists hoping to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem.
When church leaders convened at Bethlehem in early December to mark the start of Advent, as Christians call the weeks before Christmas, there were few people in the usually crowded streets and squares to watch the pared-down display.
"This Christmas comes to Bethlehem in a different shape. Nowadays Bethlehem, as any other Palestinian city, is in mourning. We feel sad," said the town mayor Hanna Hanania, lighting a candle in Manger Square.