Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Sunday with a colorful march through Manger Square. Playing drums and bagpipes, they paraded past a giant Christmas tree outside the ancient Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
But religion mixed heavily with politics in this little West Bank town, which is ruled by the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority. Two big signs in Manger Square declared that “Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of PALESTINE.”
That was a play on words regarding Israeli claims — backed in a declaration by U.S. President Donald Trump three weeks ago — that Jerusalem is “the eternal capital of Israel.”
Jerusalem goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Israelis, it is home to the Temple Mount, the site of the two biblical Temples and the holiest place in Judaism. But the Mosque of Al-Aqsa sits on the site today, the third holiest place in Islam and a national symbol for the Palestinians.
The Trump administration has said its decision on Jerusalem does not mean it is pulling out of the Middle East peace process and that the U.S. would support a two-state solution if it is agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmound Abbas says he no longer wants the U.S. involved in peace efforts following its recent decision.
“Trump with his announcement became part of the conflict and not an honest mediator in the Palestinian and Israeli peace process,” said Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman, adding that Trump took the joy out of Christmas.
Salman, a Roman Catholic who was elected six months ago, spoke to VOA in his office in Manger Square, sitting under large pictures of two prominent Muslims: the late and legendary Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and the current Palestinian President Abbas.
Ironically, Bethlehem today has a strong Muslim majority of at least 70 percent, with only 30 percent Christians. But the mayor noted that the Palestinians are one people, and Jerusalem is sacred to Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike.
“There is no way we can accept Trump’s declaration because it compromises our national principles, our national rights, our national future,” Salman explained. “And everybody in Bethlehem and Palestine refuses and rejects this statement.”
Trump’s decision has sparked violent Palestinian protests in Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank, scaring many pilgrims away. Salman played down the scope of the unrest, insisting that Bethlehem is not dangerous. Security was tight in the city as paramilitary Palestinian police armed with assault rifles patrolled the cobblestone streets.
“Both the Palestinians and Israelis are making sure that tourists feel safe here,” said Michael Valentine, who came from Brooklyn, New York.
Still, many tourists cancelled plans to visit Bethlehem due to the unrest and turnout at the Christmas celebrations was sparse.
Michael Kumsiyeh sat in his empty souvenir shop in Manger Square and put the blame squarely on Trump. “He makes a problem. He doesn’t make any solution,” asserted the Palestinian, who opened his store 47 years ago. “He doesn’t find any solution for the problem.”
Café owner Hader Kanaan said customers are few and far between. “This Christmas this year is very sad,” he lamented. “No celebration. Nobody [is] happy. [It’s a] bad situation. Everything [is] bad.”
Nevertheless, those who made the Christmas journey to the Grotto of the Nativity were glad they came.
“I consider it a favor from God because this is the place that I can touch and sense in my spirit that really Christ was born in Bethlehem,” said Sarah Dauda, a pilgrim from Nigeria. “I have heard about it since childhood but now I can see and touch. Hallelujah, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
For pilgrims, visiting Jesus’ birthplace on Christmas is an experience of faith. But for Palestinians, Christmas is a gloomy reminder that Bethlehem’s message of peace on Earth has not been fulfilled 2,000 years on.