The recent military victory of Syrian government forces in Aleppo could prove to be a major turning point in the country’s bloody civil war, which has lasted nearly six years. Similarly, in Iraq, government forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish allies have been engaging in an operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State terror group. Yet the major military operations in Syria and Iraq have come with the costs of devastation and immense human suffering. This has been especially true for the region’s minority groups, such as the Christians, who have been targeted for genocide by Islamic extremists while getting caught in the crossfire between more powerful Sunni and Shi’a Muslim governments and armies. As such, upon the arrival of this year’s Christmas season, the ancient and dwindling Mideast Christian community still finds itself fighting for survival.
Scouts with their colorful uniforms gather. More than 20 Armenian bishops and priests stand in Manger Square in Bethlehem to greet the Armenian Patriarch, His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian. With the sounds of trumpets, bagpipes, and music, the voices of young choir singers and shouts of joy, the Armenian Christmas ceremony commences. It’s 10 a.m. and the procession begins. By 10:30, Israeli police on horseback meet the group. By 2 p.m., the Patriarch will enter the Church of the Nativity and the first of three masses will begin in the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born. “You cannot imagine,” says Father Avedis Ipradjian during an interview with JNS.org in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, describing hundreds of worshippers pouring into Bethlehem from Jaffa, Haifa, Ramle, and Jerusalem.
Scouts playing bagpipes, horns, and drums entertain the visitors. Merchants peddle Santa hats and Christmas flare. The children eat sticky sesame sweets for the holiday. With more than 25,000 people celebrating, Christmas in Bethlehem is different than anywhere else in the world. A towering Christmas tree. Lights everywhere. Music and plays. In the Holy Land, Christmas is not just one day—there are services and processions led by various Christian denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Armenian, and more. And unique to Bethlehem, all of the celebrations center on one place: the Church of the Nativity. “Christians still believe that when someone makes a wish here, it comes true,” says Khadra Zreineh, an Israeli Christian tour guide from Bethlehem. “[The Church of the Nativity] is the only place in the world where it is authentic.”