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Christians in Gaza celebrate gloomy Christmas this year

Christians in the Gaza Strip will be celebrating Christmas at home this year in light of the lockdown and travel restrictions imposed to stem the skyrocketing number of coronavirus cases.
Palestinian Orthodox Christians attend a Christmas Mass at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City on January 7, 2020. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Elias al-Jalda and his family will be celebrating Christmas at home in Gaza City this year, after the Hamas-led government, which controls the Gaza Strip, announced a lockdown Dec. 10 to stem the surge of coronavirus cases that are threatening the enclave’s already fragile health-care system.

Jalda, 54, his wife Reem, 43, and their three sons celebrate Christmas each year. “On Saint Barbara’s day on Dec. 17, we would prepare a traditional dish made of wheat and nuts, which carry a religious connotation. We would distribute dishes to our family, friends and acquaintances — even among Muslims — but this year we did not,” Reem told Al-Monitor.

“Some of our family members are doctors, engineers and technicians working in medical laboratories. We fear they have been in contact with people infected with the coronavirus. This year, the family will not reunite over meals for the holidays,” she added.

To abide by the imposed social distancing measures, Jalda will content himself to wishing his sisters a merry Christmas over the phone. “It is customary during holidays to make family visits and offer gifts, but unfortunately to prevent the spread of the virus there will be no such visits.” Jalad’s family, however, has set up and decorated the Christmas tree at home just like every year.

The Ministry of Health in Gaza has warned of a new wave of coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, in light of a sharp increase in cases. The number of cases has reached more than 32,000 so far, with 273 deaths, most of whom were recorded after September when the virus started spreading in the Gazan community. 

The ministry warned that the curve has reached unexpectedly high levels at an infection rate of 44% of the total daily tests. But the true rate may be much higher in light of the reluctance to get tested and the health-care system’s incapacity.

In light of this, the Christian minority in Gaza, estimated at around 1,000 out of an approximate population of 2 million, will be celebrating Christmas in quarantine this year. About 70% of Gaza’s Christians are Greek Orthodox and the rest are Latin Catholics.

Kamel Ayad, director of public relations at the Orthodox Church in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The church did not apply for [travel] permits this year from Israel to allow Christians to celebrate Chritsmas in Bethlehem, due to the coronavirus outbreak and the dramatically increasing number of positive cases in Gaza.”

He said, “Celebrating Christmas has been difficult for Christians in Gaza for nearly 14 years, as celebrations have been limited to [attending mass] at churches while they would be held in public squares before Hamas' advent to power. This year the coronavirus pandemic has even prevented celebrations to be held in churches.”

Ayad explained that churches have been closed for three months now. “On Christmas Day and New Year's Day priests will be praying alone in churches, and mass will be transmitted via live broadcast to Christians in the Gaza Strip who will take part in them online from their home.”

Christmas has always been a joyful occasion for the women working in the Zeina Cooperative Association for Handicrafts in the marginalized village of Umm al-Nasr in the northern Gaza Strip. 

The lockdowns have made it difficult for the association to export its hand-crafted Christmas gifts and fabric Christmas trees from Gaza to European countries, such as Sweden and Italy, and also to Bethlehem in the West Bank. This year, sales will be limited to the besieged enclave.

Haneen al-Sammak, the association’s executive director, told Al-Monitor, “Amid the continuous closure of the crossings due to the blockade, travel and movement restrictions, and the cancellation of public celebrations in Bethlehem, we were unable to export our handmade Christmas items this year.”

She said sales have been restricted to the local market as Christians will be celebrating Christmas at home due to a total lockdown expected on Christmas Day. “The government is banning gatherings and celebrations to reduce the spread of the virus,” she said. “Due to the deteriorating economic situation ensuing from the blockade and the pandemic, we were forced to decrease the quantity of our handicrafts this Christmas. Demand has been higher on educational gifts rather than on luxury gifts. Clients are requesting educational boxes and boards made by our talented women who excel in carpentry and woodwork. These gifts support the e-learning system applied in Gaza amid school closures.”

This Christmas season seems to be also gloomy for flower farm owners in Gaza. Labad Hijazi, owner of the well-known Hijazi farm in Rafah, told Al-Monitor, “Public markets are still closed, and weddings and public events have been banned since September. Add to this the weekly total lockdowns that have dealt a heavy blow to the market. We have been unable to sell a quarter of the quantity of roses we would sell before the coronavirus outbreak.”

He added, “The daily curfew starts at 6:30 p.m. All markets close except for stores selling basic necessities.”

In light of the significant increase in coronavirus cases, the Hamas government is considering restrictions it can impose to reduce positive cases. It is also calling for foreign aid to help cope with the great number of hospitalized patients, especially those in the intensive care units, amid a limited number of beds.

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