Despite COVID restrictions Christians in the Holy Land determined to find a way to share light this holiday season

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Christmas decorations in Bethlehem (Photo: Paul Calvert)

The atmosphere in Israel this holiday season is brimming with disappointment and hopelessness, as opposed to the usual festiveness leading up to the Christmas holidays celebrated both on Dec. 25 by Catholics and Evangelicals and on Jan. 7 by Orthodox Christians.

“The spirit of Christmas is absent. We are trying at church to share and bring smiles to the faces of the children,” Saleem Shalash, pastor of Home of Jesus the King Church in Nazareth, told All Israel News.

But Shalash, who is an Evangelical Christian with a church of 100 in the northern city, is never one to sit back and do nothing. He simply adjusted his usual holiday outreaches to Ministry of Health COVID-19 restraints and made a new plan.

“This is the first year we are doing humanitarian aid and even in the COVID crisis, we do believe the Lord will do something,” he said.

Normally the humanitarian center distributes goods and cups of coffee to those who would stop by. But nothing is normal this Christmas season during the pandemic.

The first thing Shalash did was to blast a message on a rotating televised billboard announcing 350 times a day to the majority Muslim city: “Jesus is the reason for the season” in English, Arabic and Hebrew. He also led a small team of volunteers from the church to deliver food packages to 150 needy Jewish, Muslim and Christian families, as well as 50 Holocaust survivors. The group sang carols from their van as they drove past homes to deliver packages just a few days before Christmas.

Pastor Saleem Shalash (L) and a team of volunteers from Home of Jesus the King Church in Nazareth prepare care packages for needy Jewish, Muslim and Christian families for Christmas. (Photo: Courtesy)

Where Christmas activities are not completely cancelled, they have been significantly modified. In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the Christmas tree is lit, but live attendance was not permitted and thousands of pilgrims were absent from the annual ceremony.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many parishes have switched to streaming mass online. This year Bethlehem’s Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity will take place online. The Nazareth Village will not be presenting it’s annual Nativity play and the Christmas Fair at the YMCA Jerusalem was cancelled as well.

To make matters worse, late Wednesday night Israel’s government approved a third nationwide lockdown to begin Sunday evening at 5:00pm. This decision came as infections continue to rise – over 3,800 new cases were recorded on Tuesday.

The upcoming lockdown is a strong blow to the indigenous Christian community, a dwindling minority that holds fiercely to its traditions amid both Jewish and Muslim populations.

“These celebrations are part of our identity, history and also make community,” Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said during a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. He recalled the first lockdown in the spring, when curfews were imposed during Passover and Easter, and houses of worship were closed. “For our community this is still a wound — an open wound because we couldn’t celebrate properly,” he said.

President Rivlin, in his meeting with key Christian leaders in Jerusalem, said that freedom of religion and worship are “key values in the State of Israel.” But Christians of the Holy Land must comply with coronavirus restrictions during the holiday season,” he said.

“The safety of the Christian communities and the holy places in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, particularly in Bethlehem, are very important to us. We want to keep people safe, and infection rates down across the city,” he said. “As we always do, we will always find a way to be creative and adapt to the new reality.”

Gail Azzam and her family are members of the Local Baptist Church in Nazareth.

When asked how she is celebrating Christmas this year Azzam told Kehila News Israel, “Our family is doing what most families are doing in light of the situation now. We are trying to make the best of it. Since everyone is spending Christmas at home with immediate family only, it seems that people are decorating their homes more than usual – trying to be as festive as possible.”

The normal activities at Local Baptist Church were also cancelled. “Usually our church would have special events where families come together for a meal and celebration, and of course there would be a special service on Christmas Day.”

She explained that this year everything had to be online. Despite the circumstances, Azzam remains positive and shared words of encouragement to others.

“I believe God is giving us all time to draw closer to Him and learn more about Him so that we can be prepared for what’s next. I feel in my heart that He wants us – His believing children – to focus on personal repentance and getting right with Him. When this season of restrictions comes to an end, we can go out in a powerful way and share the Good News with our people. He’s giving us this chance and we cannot waste it!”

In fact, many Christians in Israel are choosing to see the current coronavirus restrictions in a positive light.

The Nazareth Baptist School (NBS) is usually quite active during this holiday season hosting a Christmas carnival – a bazaar to raise money to help the needy, visits to hospitals and elderly homes, as well as other campaigns in the community.

Botrus Mansour, general director of the NBS, described his perspective on the situation this year.

“Despite the fact we could not have a bazaar, we raised funds from students, families and staff,” he told Kehila News Israel. “In addition, we were blessed with food parcels from a ministry abroad and were able to help 69 families.”

Because of coronavirus restrictions, the NBS decided to upload a video with Christmas carols being sung by teachers and students, as well as a sermon entitled “He Will Be Called Emmanuel,” delivered by one of the teachers.

The video was aired on social media. As a result, hundreds of students and their parents watched and were exposed to the story of Jesus’ birth.

“While the pandemic has hurt the festive image of Christmas,” Mansour said, “it has also helped people to focus on Jesus.”

“Jesus is good,” he continued. “The pandemic has shown us the fragility of human beings. Now is the time to look above and surrender to the One that came to save us.”