It’s the most wonderful time of the year and all that. But in the city of Jesus’ birth, the mood is quite different, and the locals will tell you that it’s all Israel’s fault.
In the run-up to Christmas Day, Gil Zohar of Religion Unplugged reported sorrowful words from the Rev. Dr. Munther Ishaq, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church: “Christmas celebrations are canceled this year — for it’s impossible to celebrate Christmas while our people in Gaza are going through a genocide. Usually, it’s Jesus in the manger surrounded by the shepherds, surrounded by the Holy Family Joseph and Mary and the magi who came from the east.”
Religion Unplugged adds that Ishaq set the Baby Jesus in a “crèche featuring building debris”; this ugly politicization of Christmas “was a gesture of solidarity with Gaza’s beleaguered civilians caught between Hamas gunmen and Israeli Defense Forces.”
Zohar does his best to give the impression that “Gaza’s beleaguered civilians” are “caught between Hamas gunmen and Israeli Defense Forces” because those Israeli forces are so inveterately evil. The unaware reader would get no idea from the Religion Unplugged report that Hamas massacred 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. Ishaq, who is further identified as a “Palestinian theologian,” says sadly: “This is what Christmas looks like in Palestine.”
It has not always looked this way. Ishaq claims that Palestinians are going through genocide at the hands of Israel, yet Bethlehem’s Christian population has left the city mostly during the era of Muslim rule. In the 1950s, when the little town of Bethlehem was governed by the wicked Israelis, it was over 85% Christian; in 1995, however, it passed under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, and now it is around 12% Christian.
What’s more, there is no genocide in Gaza or anywhere else among the Palestinians. The source for the generally accepted casualty figures in Gaza is the Gaza Ministry of Health, which is controlled by Hamas. To take their figures at face value would be akin to trusting the word of Josef Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry for information about the conduct of World War II. Hamas has a vested interest in exaggerating the number of civilian casualties in Gaza because it knows how effectively civilian casualties turn international opinion against Israel.
The international media doesn’t seem to notice or care, but Hamas has lied repeatedly. On Oct. 19, for example, the total casualty number increased by 307, from 3,478 to 3,785. Yet at the same time, the total number of children killed went from 853 to 1,524, an increase of 671. Nor was that the only time such a thing happened. On Oct. 26, the total number of casualties increased by 481, while the number of children casualties went up by 626. Clearly, the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza is not too concerned that people will study these numbers closely; the idea is simply to shock and appall people with Israel’s alleged inhumanity, and that is working well enough.
It is also important to remember that Munther Ishaq is not in Gaza at all, as Bethlehem is in Judea and Samaria, now known as the West Bank. But he nevertheless wanted to claim some coveted victim status for himself and his congregation. “Here we wanted to say,” he explained about his crèche, “that it is as if they are looking for Jesus in the midst of the rubble. We wanted to send a message to the world – a message that while the whole world is celebrating Christmas in festive ways, here in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus where Christmas originated from, this is what Christmas looks like to us.”
Zohar tells us that this craven cleric “preached against the IDF offensive from his pulpit at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the adjoining town of Beit Sahour,” but doesn’t say anything about his preaching against the Oct. 7 jihad murders.
Ishaq’s sermon, says Zohar, “followed the IDF’s strike on Gaza City’s oldest active church, the historic St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church. The bombing killed 18 people, injured others and displaced about 400 civilians who were taking shelter in the church complex.”
He gives no hint, however, of what even the Washington Post, never a friend of Israel, reported: “The Israel Defense Forces said in an emailed statement that a strike targeting a Hamas control center ‘damaged the wall of a church in the area’ and that it was ‘aware of reports on casualties’ and was reviewing the incident. They declined to provide further information and reiterated, ‘It is important to clarify that the Church was not the target of the strike.’”
Ishaq also said: “Christmas is the solidarity of God with those who are oppressed, with those who are suffering, and if Jesus is to be born again, this time this year he will be born in Gaza under the rubble in solidarity with the people of Gaza.”
Ishaq doesn’t bother to explain how he reconciles Jesus’ own recorded words with the oft-repeated genocidal statements of Hamas leaders or the Gazans’ enthusiastic support for Hamas. In the world that Ishaq and Zohar inhabit, the facts don’t matter; only the narrative does. That narrative is one in which everything is Israel’s fault, no matter what the actual facts of the case may be. And so Christmas used to be the season of joy, hope, and renewal, but in the town of Jesus’ birth, the new Christmas spirit is one of lies, rage, and hate.