On the third Sunday of Advent the pews of St. Catherine Church were overflowing, with families and young children, teens and older parishioners attending Mass in anticipation of Christmas.
Pilgrim groups waited outside in the courtyard and, in the Church of Nativity, adjacent to the parish church, more pilgrim groups gathered along the stairs leading to the grotto marking the place of Jesus' birth, as Armenian clergy celebrated their liturgy.
Despite an uptick in violence between the Israeli army and Palestinians in the northern West Bank, the pre-Christmas atmosphere in Bethlehem was festive and optimistic and, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, Bethlehem hotels reported near full capacity during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The return of visitors to the city is like a breath of air for local Christians, said St. Catherine parishioner Flor Abu Slameh, 28.
"We are preparing in our hearts for Christmas and to welcome baby Jesus, and when we see the people come to visit us here, we feel more alive," she said.
Joelle Mohrez, 15, who attended Mass at St. Catherine Church with her three siblings, mother and grandmother, had a message for Christians abroad: "We still keep our traditions, we celebrate Christmas when Jesus was born, and I am glad to be born here. Life here isn't just (the violence) you see on the media. We go out, we go shopping, we have places where we eat out, we have a social life, we have fun."
While Christians make up less than 2% of the population in the Holy Land and many young Christian Palestinians emigrated in recent years due to the economic crisis of the pandemic and the difficult political situation, Mohrez's grandmother, Randa, said she was proud that all of her four children have remained in the Bethlehem area.
"We are staying here in Bethlehem, hoping for peace," she said.
While welcoming this increase of pilgrims to the Holy Land, in a Dec. 12 statement, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land also expressed "great concern" about a situation they said is "progressively and rapidly deteriorating."
"We have witnessed an upsurge in violence this year, with the highest Palestinian death toll in more than 20 years. Settler violence in the settlements is always more on the rise. The living area available to the Palestinian population continues to shrink, due to the sustained growth of settlements. We are also witnessing attacks to the Jewish population," it said in the statement.
The absence of a real peace process based on international law will lead to more suffering and violence as a consequence of "deep distrust and perhaps even hatred that is taking root in the hearts of the two populations: Israeli and Palestinians," it added.
The Assembly called especially on religious and political leaders to "foster mutual respect and not division or sentiments of hatred."
In addition, the leaders said they were worried about the arrests and detentions of Palestinian minors, the violence and lack of security within the Arab community in Israel, the legal limbo many foreign workers and asylum-seekers who are members of the church find themselves in and the weakened educational system, both in the Jewish and Arab environments.
Commenting on the newly elected Israeli government, the assembly noted that while it hoped the government would bring political stability, "certain statements" made by members of the coalition are "very divisive toward the Arab or otherwise non-Jewish community."
"They are contrary to the spirit of peaceful and constructive coexistence among the various communities that make up our society," it said. "Such statements favor those in this country who want division, create distrust and resentment. The(y) lay the groundwork for further violence. Violence in language inevitably, sooner or later, turns into physical violence as well."
The assembly also noted the importance of recognizing the positive work of groups and individuals working toward "friendship and solidarity."
"Their love gives us hope and belief that there are ... those who still want to react to the ever-strong temptations of closure and refusal to dialogue and encounter with initiatives of encounter and solidarity open to all," the assembly said.
In Bethlehem, Yousef Khalil, 37, said the act of attending Mass during Advent with his family and gathering to pray with other members of the community brings him feelings of peace and comfort in uncertain times.
"We feel more together, and this gives us a warm feeling spiritually. It is part of our culture. We can't be alone," he said, balancing his 10-month-old son, Rafael, in his arm. "Jesus, who was born here, came to bring us together. It is sad to see the Christian community shrinking, but at the same time we have hope."
Khalil urged visitors not to just visit the churches and holy shrines, but to also make an effort to meet the "living stones," or the people.
"Both are important here," he said.
One older parishioner who asked that his name not be used said he was pessimistic about the future of Christians in Bethlehem.
"In 10 years, there will be no Christians left here. We are sandwiched between two religions -- the Muslims and the Jews," he said. He pointed to the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and also charged that Christian lands in the Bethlehem area are being bought illegally by Muslim residents.
Travel agent Suheil Hazboun, 31, who came to Mass with his wife, Sandi, 28, and 7-month-old daughter Marielle, noted that in addition to the political problems and the shrinking Christian population, economically he struggles to support his young family. Sandi, a radiologist, is unable to find work in her profession, he said.
"Maybe in five or six years we will have to leave but we will see," he said, adding that seeing the pilgrims arriving again in Bethlehem has buoyed their spirits this Christmas. "This is what Bethlehem should be like. The Hazboun family is a big family in Bethlehem. So we will continue to stay in Bethlehem until our last breath."
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