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A subdued Christmas Eve in Bethlehem


And we begin this evening with midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

DETROW: Where it's much quieter than usual and much more somber. The churches in the Holy Land have canceled the usual big Christmas celebrations to draw attention to the violence and death taking place in Gaza as Israel wages its war in response to the October 7 Hamas attack. Joining us from Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Hey, Jason.


DETROW: So what's it like there today?

DEROSE: Well, there really aren't many people here. Usually, Manger Square is crowded on Christmas Eve with people celebrating. Some of the 200,000 Palestinian Christians who live in the West Bank, Galilee and Gaza come here for this day and pilgrims from all over the world, too. There's usually a giant tree, a parade, even bagpipes. But now the only decoration in Manger Square is a giant nativity but not a regular nativity. This one has life-sized statues of Jesus and Mary and Joseph standing in piles of broken concrete, surrounded by razor wire. One of the wise men is carrying a white grave cloth. It's a powerful image, one that's meant to draw attention to the bombings and the more than 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, according to the health officials there.

DETROW: Yeah, that sounds wildly different than the usual celebration, for sure. I mean, you've been talking with people in Bethlehem today. What are you hearing from them about this Christmas in a time of war?

DEROSE: They're sad. I met Shara Saeed (ph) in Manger Square, right in front of that destroyed nativity. She was one of the few people there standing in the rain. She's a Palestinian Christian and lives near Bethlehem. Saeed says even her kids haven't been looking forward to Christmas.

SHARA SAEED: (Non-English language spoken).

DEROSE: She says they're very sad about what's going on in Gaza and she supports the people there and that her family and those in Gaza are one people.

DETROW: How are religious figures leading church services tonight? How are they talking about Christmas in their sermons?

DEROSE: Well, even though Christmas celebrations are cancelled, church services, of course, continue as usual. Pastor Munther Isaac (ph) says he's preaching about peace.

MUNTHER ISAAC: Talking about peace is more meaningful in the context of oppression. Talking about hope is more meaningful in the context of despair. And this is precisely the message of Christmas.

DEROSE: And Isaac says he's thinking specifically about the people in Gaza suffering because of the Israeli military actions there.

ISAAC: God with us precisely in our pain, God with us precisely when we are marginalized. When the world rejects us, God is with us.

DEROSE: Scott, I attended Pastor Isaac's Christmas Eve service earlier, and one thing that he said in his sermon that really struck me was this. Quote, "to the nations of the world that are silent at the death of children, shame on you." He pointed to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

DETROW: And can you give us an update on that humanitarian front? What's the latest?

DEROSE: Well, the food situation in Gaza is dire. Here's something to keep in mind. Prior to October 7, Hamas attacks, about 500 supply trucks with food and medicine entered Gaza each day. Now, on a recent day, the U.N. says only about 100 relief trucks entered, and one group that monitors food security says the lack of food is now at crisis levels throughout Gaza and could soon reach famine.

DETROW: That's NPR's Jason DeRose joining us from Bethlehem. Thank you so much.

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

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Jason DeRose
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.