In Gaza, Santa is insolvent

Father Manuel Musallam leads the Sunday service at the Latin Church in Gaza City, July 2007. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

GAZA CITY, December 24 (IPS) - “Santa Claus is empty handed this year … insolvent,” says Father Manuel Musallam, head of the Holy Family School in Gaza City.

“All forms of celebration are absent,” he says, raising his empty palms skywards. “We Christians and Muslims all live in fear and instability. The Israeli tanks, bulldozers and warplanes have laid siege on us all.”

His school, which has both Muslim and Christian students, likes to celebrate including all; this year few celebrations were planned, for fewer children.

The Sunday school headmaster of the Greek Orthodox Church, Jaber al-Jilda, echoes his Catholic colleague’s sentiments. “This year’s celebrations are mainly religious,” he says. “We want to celebrate, but our hearts are full of pain and grief. We cannot celebrate and at the same time watch as the funeral of another killed by Israeli occupation passes in front of our church.”

On Friday the building where he teaches is a mosque. On Sunday, it is a church.

“I don’t feel like celebrating Christmas,” says 16-year-old Merkiana Tarazi. “Without safety and peace, even if I wear new clothes, I won’t be happy.”

Like many in Gaza who have family members in Israel, Jordan or the West Bank, Merkiana is cut off from much of her family. Her elder sister attending Birzeit University in the West Bank cannot come home for Christmas “because of the Israeli siege.”

In the past, even under occupation, Gaza’s Christian community celebrated Christmas, though without the commercialism and grandeur of the West. Before the second Palestinian uprising, the intifada, began in 2000, Christians and Muslims would gather at Gaza’s main square on Christmas Day. A giant Christmas tree was set up in the square, and a Santa Claus handed out gifts to people on the street. Today, the municipality cannot afford a tree.

“We used to offer chocolate to our children at the school,” Father Musallam said. “But now because of the Israeli siege, no chocolate is available.”

The Christmas decorations are gone, too. “Paper and drawing materials are scare. And if we happen to find supplies in the market, we cannot afford them. Even clothes or just the basic ingredients needed to make a Christmas cake are not available here.”

But the conditions have still not killed spirits; in place of chocolate, Father Manuel’s school arranged strawberries. Strawberries grown in Gaza were one of the products destined for Europe this year, but Israel stopped the export. That made them some hope at Christmas.

Al-Jilda too has found his own substitutes. For Christmas gifts he is offering religious books instead of chocolates, dresses and more traditional gifts.

Christmas comes this year amidst stories that continue to surface in Western media accusing the Hamas government or Muslims in general of persecuting Christians in Gaza or Palestine. Not many Christians in Gaza say that.

“Hamas has never done that,” Jilda says emphatically. “They send representatives from Hamas to our celebrations. Last year, as the year before, they came and offered Christmas greetings at our Church to the entire congregation.”

In the absence of much else, the Christian leaders offer words of hope.

“Christmas is about forgiveness and peace,” says Father Musallam. “It begins with a child. If we each plant a tree of happiness in our children’s hearts, the fruit produced will be peace. I send my love and respect to the world at a time when our people live in hope, and in despair.”

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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