International News

Given ‘Pain’ in Gaza, Leaders Urge Holy Land Christians to Forgo Holiday Festivities

A pilgrim lights a candle Dec. 17, 2016, in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza war, Christmas in Bethlehem and the Holy Land in 2023 will be one of solemnity, prayer, and fasting, the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem said. (Photo: OSV News/Debbie Hill)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — As the war in Gaza drags on and other global hotspots escalate, Church leaders in both Europe and the Holy Land have again called for peace and disarmament, and for acts of solidarity with those who are suffering.

In a Nov. 10 statement, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem asked that Christians in the region refrain from usual festivities during the Advent and Christmas seasons in honor of those who have lost homes or family members.

“Each year during the sacred seasons of Advent and Christmastide, our Christian communities throughout the Holy Land take great delight in their preparations for the commemoration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” holding large-scale religious services and public festivities with bright light displays and ornate decorations, they said.

However, “these are not normal times,” they said, noting that since the outbreak of the war in Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, “an atmosphere of sadness and pain” has taken over.

Israeli authorities have said some 1,200 Israelis were killed during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, and over 200 more were taken hostage. Israel immediately retaliated, and so far, Palestinian authorities estimate that over 11,200 people have been killed, more than 4,100 of whom are children. 

Countless people have suffered serious injuries and have lost their homes, loved ones, and their jobs, while others are still uncertain about the fate of family members, the Holy Land church leaders noted.

“Despite our repeated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence, the war continues,” the church leaders said, asking their respective congregations to “stand strong with those facing such afflictions by this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities.

“We likewise encourage our priests and the faithful to focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas in their pastoral activities and liturgical celebrations during this period,” with most efforts directed at those most impacted by the war, they added.

They also asked the faithful to pray, advocate, and give generously to relief efforts, saying that in doing so, “we will be standing in support of those continuing to suffer.”

On Nov. 10, an ecumenical prayer vigil was held in Jerusalem, attended by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and other regional church leaders.

Cardinal Pizzaballa thanked Pope Francis for his frequent words of comfort and solidarity, saying the pontiff is in frequent contact with the assistant pastor of the Latin-rite parish in Gaza as well as religious sisters belonging to various congregations who are living in the Gaza Strip.

“We must not lose our hope for peace! We have to choose prayer over violence and destruction, because the final word is life,” Cardinal Pizzaballa said, voicing his solidarity with Gaza inhabitants.

Pope Francis during his Sunday Angelus address again spoke out about the conflict, citing his closeness to both Israelis and Palestinians who are suffering.

“I embrace them at this dark time. And I pray for them a lot,” he said, saying, “the weapons must stop, they will never bring peace and the conflict must not spread! Enough! Enough, brothers, enough!”

He said the wounded in Gaza must be helped “immediately” and civilians must be protected. He also called for humanitarian aid to be delivered “to that exhausted population” without delay.

Referring to the roughly 240 Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza, elderly people and children among them, Pope Francis said they must be freed and said that every human being, regardless of race or ethnicity, “is sacred, precious in the eyes of God, and has the right to live in peace.”

“Let us not lose hope: Let us pray and work tirelessly so that the sense of humanity prevails over the hardness of hearts,” he said.

At the close of their fall plenary assembly, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) also spoke out about the war in Gaza and other global conflicts, calling for the pursuit of peace and an end to the arms trade.

In a Nov. 10 statement titled, “Europe, offer a renewed vision for justice and peace to the continent and to the world!,”  the bishops expressed concern about the deterioration of international peace and security.

“The world seems to be regressing into a dangerous dynamic, reminiscent of some of the darkest hours of humankind which were meant to remain in history books,” they said, pointing to an increasingly polarized international community.

The situation is “fueled by a renewed logic of competition between the great powers, along with eroding trust in multilateral cooperation frameworks,” they said, saying this dynamic opens the door to “an uncontrollable escalation with catastrophic consequences for the whole of humanity.

“In recent months, the neighborhood of the European Union has become a true ring of fire, both to the East and to the South,” they added, voicing concern over “Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine,” the escalation of violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the eruption of war in Gaza.

The European bishops assured their prayers for those suffering and warned that international polarization and the regional instability of the Middle East also have consequences for Europe, as they contribute to “stirring up fears, weakening dialogue, and threatening social cohesion.

“Dangerous phenomena have been gaining ground in several European countries, such as anti-Semitism, radicalization, and xenophobia, often fueled by a systematic spread of disinformation and resulting in violent extremism and terrorism, which we strongly condemn in all their forms and expressions,” they said.

COMECE called on leaders of the European Union and EU citizens to return to the “two great dreams” of unity and peace envisioned by Europe’s founding fathers, saying these roots and the values of the various EU treaties are an invitation “to recommit to that path.

“We dream of a Europe which fully employs its potential to settle conflicts and to light lamps of hope, acting as a united, trustful and integrating force, cherishing democratic principles and the rule of law, within and outside its borders,” they said.

As they have in the past, the bishops insisted that peace is not simply the absence of war, but requires consistent and coherent efforts in promoting justice, human dignity, integral human development, and care for the environment.

They urged political leaders in the EU to be active in “shaping and offering to the continent and to the world a renewed vision for stability, justice and peace.

“While not giving in to a logic of war, the European Union should open up new processes of dialogue and develop a coherent diplomacy of peace,” the bishops said, saying the EU must become “a true bridge and peacemaker in its neighborhood and in the world.”

Europe must play a leading role in rebuilding “a global architecture of peace, rooted in effective multilateralism and respect for international law, including sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of other states,” they said.

They also called for tighter global arms control and said nonproliferation and disarmament agreements must be prioritized “in view of fostering mutual trust as a pillar of international stability.”