‘All you can do is survive’: A bleak midwinter for Christians in the Middle East

‘All you can do is survive’: A bleak midwinter for Christians in the Middle East

A mid the shipwrecked shells of destroyed buildings, Saydet El Najet church is a ray of light for her parishioners who gather for mass on a crisp Christmas Eve.

Living just a few hundred metres from Beirut’s destroyed port in the impoverished district of Karantina, the congregation miraculously survived the 4 August explosion, dubbed the largest non-nuclear blast in modern history.

But many have had no choice but to stay put in the patchwork remnants of their homes, unable to fix them amid an unprecedented financial collapse that has pushed more than half of Lebanon under the poverty line.

The church itself was ripped open by the wrestling tornadoes of pressure from the explosion.

But thanks to a local charity, dozens of volunteers and specialist architects, the 100-year old church, allegedly a historical quarantine point for Maronite nuns en route to Rome, was restored in time for Christmas Eve. And so, despite being dwarfed by destruction, Christmas was not completely cancelled.

“This neighbourhood has seen a lot of difficult times and was the focus of battles during the 15-year civil war,” says Elie Makhlouf, 45 who lives just three doors down in a flat that was ripped apart in the blast.

“This church was destroyed and rebuilt many times during the war and so it means a great deal to us that this has been done again.”

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He helped the reconstruction efforts spearheaded by Lebanese charity Offre Joie, which has restored and, in some cases, completely rebuilt 50 buildings across the blast-ravaged area.

“But we are close-knit community and we have to keep our spirits high,” he adds.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, Christians who make up 5 per cent of the region’s population are holding muted celebrations amid one of the toughest festive seasons in memory, as families contend with the pandemic, on top of other conflicts and disasters, like the Beirut port blast, and escalating poverty.

In the Lebanese capital, the explosion rocked some of the city’s most iconic Christian neighbourhoods, killing 200 people, injuring thousands more and initially leaving more than a quarter of a million people homeless.

Now, nativity scenes sit among the ruins, and local residents are trying to celebrate Christmas after an exceptionally challenging year: people dressed as Father Christmas pose for photos and children in medical masks and Christmas hats dance.

Inside the beautifully renovated Saydet El Najet church, worshippers, sitting apart because of the coronavirus restrictions, gave thanks for surviving the year and prayed for a better 2021.

In Bethlehem, the heart of Christmas, residents told The Independent they are also limping through the end of a miserable year.

Most usual celebrations, including gathering around the huge Christmas tree in Manger Square, have been cancelled over fears of the spread of a new more infectious variant of Covid-19, not yet found in the West Bank.

Thousands of foreign pilgrims usually descend on the Palestinian town but the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign visitors and the announcement of a new national lockdown starting on Sunday kept tourists away this year.

As the number of Covid-19 cases soared to 129,000 and the death toll to 1,243 across the Palestinian Territories, the Palestinian Authority last week banned inter-city travel in the areas it administers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, keeping even local visitors away.

Under dark and rainy skies, residents who heavily rely on tourism during the Christmas period, say the town is deserted and the local economy decimated.

“It’s actually silent night this year in Bethlehem, we are witnessing Christmas with almost no joy,” says Antwan Sara, 36, who first spoke to The Independent in March when he volunteered to look after a group of American pilgrims and Palestinian hotel staffers who tested positive and were quarantining at a local hotel.

“The city is almost abandoned without the visitors and so is missing a huge part of its identity.

The empty Manger Square before the lighting of the Christmas tree (AFP/Getty)

“I know business owners who left their establishments like bars, restaurants and coffee shops, to work as labourers inside Israel,” he adds.

And compounding the sadness is families being unable to reunite.

Around 1,000 Christians live in Gaza, geographically separate from the West Bank and which has been crippled by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group seized control of the enclave in 2007.

Christmas and Easter are the few times a year Gaza’s dwindling Christian population are normally able to apply for permits to leave the tiny enclave and worship in Bethlehem or see family in Jerusalem or the West Bank.

But this year, amid the pandemic, no permits have been granted at all.

Nisreen Antoine, 40, who works at Gaza’s Holy Family Catholic church, says she has not seen her sister in two years and was hoping this year to finally get permission to visit Jerusalem where her sibling lives.

The mother-of-three tried last Easter but was rejected. Since then the pandemic has halted any small chance of going.

“My sister is very sad, she hopes every year to see me, my children and our father especially now when it has been very difficult,” she says.

“Life is usually hard in Gaza, but the pandemic has made it even harder. Families can barely afford to eat.”

Gaza’s Holy Family Catholic church where Nisreen works, has been closed for Christmas amid Covid-19 ( AFP/Getty)

Although Christians in Gaza do not face persecution as communities do in countries such as Egypt, openly practising Christianity can be a taboo in the strip’s conservative society.

People cannot publicly celebrate outside their homes or in churches in the enclave, which is largely controlled by Islamist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

A leaked Hamas memo this month upset many in the community as it showed the group wanted to curb Christmas celebrations among Gaza’s Muslim majority. The ministry of religious affairs document, dated 15 December, called for “activities by the directorate of preaching and spiritual guidance to limit interaction with Christmas”.

Hamas said it was never meant to offend Christians or limit their ability to celebrate, and said the reaction was exaggerated.

Saydet el Najet church after the blast and now after it has been restored for Christmas Eve (Bel Trew/Offre Joie)

But it felt like a double blow to many, says Antwan in Bethlehem, who adds that “we feel like we are being challenged internally as well”.

Back in Beirut, at Saydet El Najet church, those in the congregation say the small act of rehabilitating their church felt like an important victory in a bleak time.

“It’s a message of hope on a day which is supposed to be one of hope,” says Marc Torbey, 33, president of the Offre Joie charity, which rebuilt the church.

“Even the simple act of being able to have mass on Christmas Eve will have a huge morale boost.”

As mass gets under way, Makhlouf echoes the words spoken by several of the congregation.

“Nothing is going to break us; we have to keep going,” he says.

Our Correspondent

Our Correspondent