Phoebe Greenwood in Gaza City
Since the Palestinian Authority left the Gaza Strip, festive celebrations and displays of crucifixes have become taboo.
When the Latin patriarch came to Gaza’s Holy Family church to celebrate Christmas mass last week, he instructed a full house of Catholic and Orthodox families to pray for reconciliation. As the archbishop, Fouad Twal, stood at the lectern in Gaza City, Fatah and Hamas leaders were meeting in Cairo attempting to mend differences that have divided the Palestinian factions for four years and rendered Gaza a besieged Islamist enclave.
Of the 1.5 million Palestinians now living in the Gaza Strip, fewer than 1,400 are Christian and those who can are leaving. The church hopes reconciliation will bring them back.
There hasn’t been a Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square since Hamas pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007 and Christmas is no longer a public holiday.
Imad Jelda is an Orthodox Christian who runs a youth training centre in Gaza City. With unemployment hovering at 23%, he has seen young Christian men leave to study and work abroad in their droves. “People here do not celebrate Christmas anymore because they are nervous,” Jelda said. “The youth in particular have a fear inside themselves.”
Karam Qubrsi, 23, and his younger brother Peter, 21, are the eldest sons in one of Gaza’s 55 remaining Catholic families. Both wear prominent wooden crucifixes. “Jesus tells me, ‘if you can’t carry my cross, you don’t belong to me,'” Peter explained. It’s a demonstration of faith that has caused him some trouble.
He describes being stopped in the street by a Hamas official who told him to remove the cross. “I told him it’s not his business and that I wouldn’t,” Peter said. After being threatened with arrest he was eventually let go, but the incident scared him.
The brightly decorated tree in the Qubrsis’ living room sits at odds with the sombre mood. Their sisters Rani, 29, and Mai, 27, left Gaza in 2007 when the 30-year-old manager of Gaza’s Bible Society bookstore, where their husbands worked, was shot dead, having been accused by radical elements of proselytising. They now live in Bethlehem.
Their parents are currently in Israel where their mother is receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer. Israel applies strict restrictions to Palestinians hoping to leave the Gaza Strip, meaning the brothers are unable to join them. A quota of 500 applicants will be given permission to enter the West Bank this Christmas but only people younger than 16 and older than 35 will be considered.
“Christmas for us means going to Bethlehem, being with family. This year we’ll do nothing,” Karam said.
The Qubrsi brothers hold out little hope for Gaza. They agree that life would be better for the Christians here if the Palestinian Authority were to return but they doubt any factional peace would last.
“Many people want the Palestinian Authority to come back just so they can take their revenge,” Peter said.
“This is not a Christian environment. There are no good universities, there is no opportunity to work, no apartments to rent and so no way we can get married. We have no future here.”