JERUSALEM — A leading evangelical Christian leader, the Rev. Johnnie Moore, accused Hamas of pulling the plug on Christmas lights and festivities in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. This comes as the number of Christians in the city continues to dwindle.
‘It is Hamas, not Israel, which cut off the Christmas lights in Bethlehem. Hamas tried to sabotage Christmas in the Holy Land for the world’s 2 billion Christians. Jesus is the prince of peace. Hamas hates peace,’ Moore, who is the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, told Fox News Digital.
The U.S. government and the European Union have classified Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization.
Moore added, ‘Instead of taking a page from Hamas by further politicizing religion, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and in Bethlehem should have defied Hamas’ hate by having the biggest celebration they could imagine to spread the message of the Prince of Peace, Jesus … from Bethlehem.’
He continued, ‘But, that’s fine. One only has to drive a mile to Jerusalem where Christmas is alive and well. Jerusalem is alive with holiday celebrations because Israel is, even now, fiercely protecting its sanctity during this time of terror and war. Or, if you want a dose of hope that peace is not only possible but will come, then drive up north to beautiful Haifa. It is a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peace with one another and not only side-by-side but by sharing their lives, joys and sorrows together.’
Palestinian Christian leaders said during the war that celebrations would not unfold in the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located. Many Israelis refer to the West Bank by its biblical name Judea and Samaria.
While the number of Christians in Middle East countries has plummeted, Israel continues to experience growth of its minority Christian population.
According to newly released data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, roughly 187,900 Christians live in Israel, which is a 1.3% rate of growth when contrasted with last year’s statistics. Israel’s current population is approximately 9.795 million people and is expected to soar past 10 million in 2024.
Yet for Bethlehem, things aren’t as rosy. In 2016, the National Catholic Reporter wrote that Bethlehem and its surrounding villages had a Christian population of 86% in 1950. In 2016, the paper reported, the number of Christians sunk to a mere 12%. According to the National Catholic Reporter, there were just 11,000 Christians in Bethlehem.
In 2023, an estimated 10,000 Christians lived in Jesus’ birthplace among a total Bethlehem population of roughly 75,500 residents.
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The Rev. Petra Heldt, a leading Christian scholar who has lived in Israel for 40 years, told Fox News Digital that she pins the blame on the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules over Bethlehem, for the lack of Christmas festivities.
‘The PA ordered the demolition of Christmas decorations in Bethlehem. This came in the wake of the statements of the heads of churches in Jordan (Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic; they have churches in Gaza) on Dec. 1. The statement is written in the spirit of Hamas, if not dictated by Hamas. The heads of churches are hostages of Hamas,’ Heldt said.
She added, ‘In Jerusalem, the Orthodox and the Catholics do not take their statements too seriously. For instance, yesterday the Catholic Church and the International Christian Embassy joined forces in a joyful open Christmas sing-along in Mamilla Mall. There is a huge Christmas tree in front of the YMCA in King David Street.’
The rapid decline of the Christian population in Bethlehem under the rule of the Muslim-majority Palestinian Authority has been the subject of some news reporting over the last decade.
‘There are no reliable figures for the numbers of Christians in Bethlehem,’ Heldt said. ‘The numbers are extremely low in comparison to 1993, before [the Oslo Accords established a peace framework between Israel and the Palestinian leadership]. Conservative estimates speak of 5% of Christians in Bethlehem as [contrasted] to some 90-plus percent before 1993. The hardship for Christians in Bethlehem is beyond words. Fear, threats and intimidation is the norm, not because of Israel, because of the PA.’
Yet, some dissenting voices suggested Israel’s response via its declaration of war on Hamas in self-defense to the jihadi movement’s Hamas’ massacre of 1,200 people, including more than 30 Americans, on Oct. 7 is why Christian leaders canceled Christmas in Bethlehem.
The Rev. Dr. Jack Sara, the general secretary of the Middle East and North Africa Evangelical Alliance, told Fox News Digital, ‘Sadly, this is not the first time that Palestinian Christians have decided to cancel all the festivities in Bethlehem. It was done before, during the first intifada and second intifada, and now.’
Intifada is an Arabic word that means ‘shaking off’ and has been frequently interpreted as ‘uprising’ to describe violent Palestinian protests against Israel in the disputed West Bank territory in 1987. A second intifada erupted in 2000 with Palestinian suicide bombing attacks against Jews in Israel.
Sara said about the cancelation of Christmas festivities in Bethlehem: ‘The reasons are obvious. How can Christians celebrate when their own people are going through such tragedy? It’s tragedy after tragedy. We lament the killing of all civilians, including those who fell on the 7th of October. But what followed that is also very tragic and makes us lament more innocent lives, over 20,000 now, over 1.5 million refugees; and, in addition, even our Christian community in Gaza is struggling to survive because of the war on Gaza.’ The 20,000 deaths are numbers provided by the Hamas-run ministry of health.
Israel’s government and many Mideast experts reject the number of 1.5 million Palestinian refugees because of an allegedly biased and antiquated U.N. definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee.
In contrast to other standard definitions of a refugee that refer to a person (and not his or her descendants) who has fled a conflict zone, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says that descendants of a Palestinian refugee who were displaced during Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-1949 warrants refugee status.
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When asked about the demise of Christian life in Bethlehem, Sara, who runs a Bible college in Bethlehem, said, ‘True, but the numbers were higher before 1948 and before 1967. I don’t believe it’s related to the Oslo agreements, the Christians’ numbers dwindled always, even in what we call ‘better time,’ meaning no escalation of the conflict.’
He added, ‘Christians have had families immigrate or leave the country since 1948, so they have relatives all over the world and that connection makes it easier for them to immigrate. Christians in general, like anyone else, fear for their children’s future living in a conflict zone, under occupation, so they opt to find a safer place with no fear of uninvited violence.’
Fox News Digital sent numerous press queries to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Bethlehem municipality for comment.