RAMALLAH, West Bank — Fadi Nassar, an 11-year-old from Ramallah, was euphoric in his Santa hat as he clasped his balloon. Despite the cold, he was walking along with the Christmas caravan as it roamed the streets of this West Bank city just north of Jerusalem. The caravanners sang carols and other songs as a man dressed as Santa Claus leaned out to distribute candy to children in the streets.
This year, the Christmas caravan took off from Bethlehem Dec. 19 and arrived in Ramallah Dec. 21. It then traveled to Zababdeh in Jenin — the north of the West Bank — and finally ended in Jericho Dec. 26.
The caravan brought some festivity to Bethlehem, a focal point in Christmas celebrations every year, as Israel blocks Christians in the Gaza Strip from visiting the birthplace of Jesus and the venue of some of the oldest Christian — both Catholic and Orthodox — churches.
Each of the six floats that made up the parade presented a scene to fascinate the small children who chase it down the streets: the nativity scene in Bethlehem or Santa’s workshop. The first — where Santa distributed candies — was pulled by two artificial golden reindeer.
The parade had a celebrity touch: Palestinian artist Yaacoub Chahine, who won the Arab Idol competition for singing in 2017, accompanied the caravan on its tour. His musical repertoire included a national hymn, “Dawwa El Kawn Kello” (“A Light has shone on the whole world”) — with the lyrics, “When Jesus was born, people rejoiced. Even the trees sang and the bells tolled.”
The Christmas caravan starting at the birthplace of Jesus is the brainchild of Juliana Hodali, director of the Ramallah-based PR company Media Plus. Her inspiration for the pro bono project came from her son Maxim, who had been fascinated with Christmas parades that he had seen outside Palestine. “Maxim was absolutely overjoyed when he saw the parades and when he came back to Palestine, he kept telling his friends how beautiful they were, with ornaments, Santa and gifts,” she told Al-Monitor.
But it was a battle to create the same atmosphere in Palestine and get permission as well as funding for it. The caravan first took off in 2015 around Bethlehem. The next year, it reached Ramallah. In 2017, the caravan was invited to put on shows in Jordan and spend Christmas there rather than in West Bank. Last year, it failed to secure funding.
This year, however, the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs funded it to visit four provinces in the West Bank. The committee, founded by a presidential decree in 2012, monitors the legal, institutional and real estate affairs of churches and Christian places of worship and promotes equality.
“The caravan is carrying the message that Palestinian children deserve the joys of Christmas, just like all kids around the world who celebrate and rejoice,” Hodali said, adding, “Palestine has one of the best stories to tell the world” as it is the birthplace of Jesus.
“We have the right to share this story with our children in a unique way, so we tried to share some of the [Biblical scenes] with the local kids. These are the descriptions the kids read in books and stories and see in movies, from Santa Claus distributing gifts to reindeer and caravans,” she said. “In 2020, the caravan will reach new areas, like Nazareth.”
“The Christmas caravan and its celebration of Christmas is part of the committee’s work,” said director Ramzi Khouri during a Dec. 15 press conference in Ramallah. “[We also] defend Islamic and Christian sanctities, try to counter … the Israeli attempts to undermine the Christian as well as Muslim presence through the new nationality law [which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people], serve the main recognized churches and their associations and carry out restoration work.”
He noted that the committee has restored two key churches in West Bank. The Burqin Church in Jenin governorate is known as the Miracle Church because Jesus healed lepers there, and the Saint Moses the Abyssinian Church was built in Nablus in 430 CE. Various restoration projects were carried out in Christian sites in Al-Zababdeh, Taibeh, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The committee works to reinforce the Christian presence in Palestine while ensuring Christians' rights, though their number in the Palestinian territories has dropped significantly. The Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem and Holy Sites stated October 2019 that Christians currently make up less than 1% of citizens in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Khouri said that there are less than 45,000 Christians distributed between the West Bank, where 40,000 live, the Gaza Strip that is home to around 1,000 Christians and Jerusalem, which is home to 4,000.
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