Pope kicks off Christmas celebrations in shadow of wars

We are close to our brothers and sisters who are suffering from war -- we are thinking of Palestine, of Israel, of Ukraine, Pope said

BETHLEHEM: Pope Francis on Sunday kicked off global Christmas celebrations with a call for peace, as Israel's war on Hamas and Russia's invasion of Ukraine cast a shadow over one of the world's favourite holidays.

Children around the globe meanwhile tracked Santa, his reindeer and their present-laden sleigh with the help of, a 3-D interactive website run annually by a joint US-Canadian military monitoring agency.

And revellers the world over donned Santa's red caps for a shot of holiday cheer in all sorts of leisure activities -- a city race in Spopje, a surfing session in Florida, a jog in the woods on the outskirts of Paris, a dip in the sea near the port of Dover, and a dip with a drink in hand in Lake Geneva.

At the Vatican, the pope struck a somber tone.

"Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world," the pope said, adding that Jesus "does not eliminate injustice from above by a show of force, but from below, by a show of love".

Earlier in the day, the pontiff had said: "We are close to our brothers and sisters who are suffering from war -- we are thinking of Palestine, of Israel, of Ukraine".

'Hard to celebrate'

Bethlehem, the biblical city in the occupied West Bank where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born in a manger more than 2000 years ago, effectively cancelled the annual Christmas celebrations that normally draw thousands of tourists.

The town did away with its giant Christmas tree, marching bands and flamboyant nativity scene this year, settling for just a few festive lights.

In the centre of town, a huge Palestinian flag had been unfolded with a banner declaring that "The bells of Bethlehem ring for a ceasefire in Gaza".

"A lot of people are dying for this land," said Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student. "It's really hard to celebrate while our people are dying."

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arrived Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, clad in the traditional black and white keffiyeh.

"Our heart goes to Gaza, to all people in Gaza but a special attention to our Christian community in Gaza who is suffering," he said.

"We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough, we have to stop these hostilities and to turn the page because violence generates only violence."

The Hamas attack on October 7 left around 1,140 people dead in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on the latest official Israeli figures.

The Palestinian militants also abducted around 250 people, 129 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza.

Israel's relentless riposte has combined a sustained bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, where 20,424 people have been killed, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the territory's health ministry.

New Christmas day

Ukraine, invaded by Russia nearly two years ago, is celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time, jettisoning the traditional Orthodox date of January 7, which is feted in Russia, as a snub to Moscow.

"All Ukrainians are together. We all celebrate Christmas together. On the same date, as one big family, as one nation, as one united country," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a Christmas message released Sunday evening.

In the southern Black Sea port of Odesa, churchgoers prayed and lit candles as priests in gold vestments held Christmas Eve service in the Cathedral of the Nativity, decorated with fir trees and a nativity scene.

"We believe that we really should celebrate Christmas with the whole world, far away, far away from Moscow. For me that's the new message now," said one smiling parishioner, Olena, whose son is a medic on the front line.

The date change -- moving away from the Gregorian calendar favoured by the Orthodox Church -- is part of moves since the invasion to remove traces of the Russian and Soviet empires.

Priests and even entire parishes have switched to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is growing fast and taking over several Russia-linked church buildings in moves backed by the government.

Syria's prayers

There was little sign of Christmas cheer in Syria's cities, where main churches have limited celebrations to prayers in solidarity with Palestinians suffering war in Gaza.

"In Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, people are suffering," the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Dionysius Antoine Shahda, told AFP.

As well as the Catholic Church, the leaders of three of Syria's major churches -- the Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic patriarchs -- also cancelled Christmas festivities, limiting celebrations to religious ceremonies.

( Source : AFP )
Next Story