BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories, Jan 7, (AFP): Thousands of Christians from the eastern tradition gathered in Bethlehem Friday for Christmas Eve celebrations, with a procession to the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.
A few thousand people, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, attended the celebrations in the occupied West Bank at the Church of the Nativity — built on the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born. On a crisp sunny morning, Palestinian scout groups performed bagpipe and brass versions of Jingle Bells and other Christmas songs, while residents and foreign tourists lined the streets. After entering the church, priests addressed the congregation ahead of a major Holy Mass planned for Friday evening.
Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan 7, while those in the West observe it on Dec 25 due to differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The celebrations for Western Christmas two weeks before were larger in scale with many more pilgrims, but the majority of Palestinian Christians come from churches that celebrate on Jan 7
John Mawal, an Australian Orthodox priest of Lebanese descent visiting for the holiday period, said the morning was “very special” for him. “Here you see a few of the patriarchs coming in from the different denominations coming through and the last of them being the Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilus,” he said.
“Being from Australia it is something we would probably never get to see in our lifetime.” The day is due to conclude with thousands packed into the church for midnight mass, before Christmas celebrations on Saturday. Mariana Thaljieh, an Orthodox Christian from Bethlehem, said she was there to welcome Theophilos but would come back later for Holy Mass.
“The atmosphere is lovely. I feel safe today. The weather is very beautiful and that is helping the people to come.” “The atmosphere is very beautiful in the city of his birth.” Meanwhile, in Cairo, it is Christmas Eve for Egypt’s Copts but Marie Labib is not in a festive mood, with dark thoughts haunting her weeks after a church bombing killed 28 members of her community. Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt’s population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Christmas on Saturday, have long complained of discrimination. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Dec 11 suicide bombing that killed 28 worshippers during Sunday Holy Mass in Cairo, the latest bout of bloodshed in the Muslimmajority country.
“No one feels festive. I haven’t baked a cake,” said Labib, a 47-yearold mother of two who lives in the upscale Cairo district of Maadi. In her living room a huge picture of Jesus Christ hangs on a wall and a small Christmas tree strung with lights sits on a table. “Fear grips me each time one of my three children goes out,” she said, adding that she has urged her daughters to hide the cross worn around their necks “to avoid any possible attack”. The church bombing as well as the murder on Monday in second city Alexandria of a Coptic wine merchant, whose throat was slit by a man for apparently religious motives, has compounded fears among Copts. “I don’t feel secure. It is as if someone could kill me thinking that this act would bring them closer to God,” said Marina Najji, one of Labib’s daughters. The 25-year-old bank employee said she would not heed her mother’s advice to conceal her cross under her clothes when she is out “because it is a part of me”. But she quickly added: “This is not a happy holiday and I hope it will pass without any problem”.
The Dec 11 attack was the second church bombing targeting Egypt’s Copts since 2011, when 21 worshippers attending New Year’s Eve Holy Mass in Alexandria were killed. The wine merchant’s murder has only deepened the sense of nervousness. “It is very normal to be worried after two attacks taking place in less than a month,” said 37-year-old accountant George. George, who lives in the Pyramids district of Cairo, said he went to Alexandria last week to attend New Year’s mass and was shocked by the tight security. Metal detectors have been installed at the gates of the churches in Cairo and Alexandria for Coptic Christmas and barriers erected around them to prevent anyone from parking cars in the area. George said he was body-searched before he went inside the Alexandria church by security agents checking for explosives. “It’s regrettable that even in church you can’t feel safe,” he said. Early Friday morning worshippers thronged the Virgin Mary Church in north Cairo, entering one by one through a metal detector.
“These are merely precautionary measures. They are not meant to frighten worshippers,” said a church official who declined to be named. Adel Ishaq, a 30-year-old father of a two-week-old girl, said he knew three people killed in the Dec 11 church bombing. Since that bloody attack he has been struggling with his fear of going to church and his mother has implored him to stay away from the house of worship. “Each time I get ready to go to church fear overwhelms me because I think that I could be the next victim, but I manage to overcome it,” he said. “Ever since the bombing, Copts feel they have to overcome a challenge,” said Saeed Saadallah, a man in his 70s. There have been dozens of anti- Christian attacks in Egypt in recent years. In August 2013 supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi torched a dozen churches and Coptic properties after a police crackdown that left hundreds of Islamist demonstrators dead.