Saturday 3 December 2016

Portrait of the Week: A journey fraught with danger, 2,000 years on

As the world celebrates Christmas, the Pope reminds us not to lose sight of its true meaning, writes Rachel Lavin

Rachel Lavin

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Call for balance: Pope Francis delivers his 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Christmas Day Photo: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Call for balance: Pope Francis delivers his 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Christmas Day Photo: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

If Mary and Joseph were to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, it's possible the two-hour journey by car could be more difficult for them now than it was 2,000 years ago, and that's even considering their equine mode of transport and the fact that Mary was nine months pregnant with the future Christian Messiah.

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Travelling the 100km journey, which crosses the border between Israel and an occupied Palestine would see them passing through four major checkpoints that requires Israeli-issued permits and ID cards, Israeli military posts and tense civilian areas such as the illegal Israeli settlements, home to some of the 550,000 settlers living in occupied land and refugee camps, inhabited by 1.5 million displaced Palestinians.

And all this would be amidst the growing violence that has plagued the territory since last week. Four Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, bringing the number of Palestinian deaths to 134, including 26 children, since the beginning of October.

Twenty Israelis, a US citizen and an Eritrean reportedly mistaken for a Palestinian attacker, were also killed in the same period, bringing the total number of deaths in the past three months to 156.

As well as violence escalating in Israel, the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, further uproar was caused last week over a leaked video of a Jewish wedding party celebrating the death of a Palestinian family who were killed in an arson attack on their home.

The crowd raised their guns as they danced and one individual repeatedly stabbed a picture of the young 18-month-old boy that died with his parents.

Tensions are running so high that a committee of Christian leaders in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, decided against overt displays of Christmas celebrations last week. It was reported by the New York Times that Palestine's Christians who make up 1-2pc of the West Bank's 2.7 million, would celebrate the holiday with no trees, no decorations on streets and no fireworks.

According to Ramallah's Christian Mayor, Musa Hadid, they hope to give a "political message to the world" that would highlight "the conditions faced by the Palestinians, as a result of the current situation imposed by Israel's occupation".

The decision was made in part to show respect to those grieving in a city marred by death and hostility. In nearby Bethlehem, Mayor Vera Baboon echoed this sentiment.

"Instead of the fireworks, we rang the bells of the Nativity Church," she said. "Merry Christmas and happy new year from the city of peace that lives without peace."

Elsewhere in the Middle East in Christmas week, many Syrian refugees making long journeys in search of peace are continuing to lose their life as they cross the Mediterranean. Twenty-four people died in two separate sinkings, adding to the 3,700 that did not survive the journey this year.

For those who do make it, they're increasingly finding there's 'no room at the inn'. The Economist reported that Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War.

Speaking on Channel 4's alternative Christmas Day message, Abdullah Kurdi, father of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach earlier this year, said: "I'd like the whole world to open its doors to Syrians".

However, more than open borders is needed. Many who are given sanctuary within Europe are still met with danger as the West responds to the crisis with increased prejudice. In the German region of Bavaria, fires broke out at two refugee hostels, injuring 12 people. Arson is suspected.

Meanwhile, a British Muslim family travelling to Disneyland for Christmas were refused entry to their flight without being given reason. When asked why he thinks they were banned, father Mohammad Mahmood said: "We've been Trumped".

Elsewhere however, progress has been made in the real fight against Islamist extremism. On Tuesday, Iraq's military reclaimed part of Ramadi, a crucial Isil-held city in Iraq. The army says it now controls over half the city, including a key military command centre. Located 120km from the capital of Baghdad, a US military spokesperson said the capture of Ramadi was "inevitable" but that it would be a "tough fight" that will "take some time".

Pope Francis touched on many of these issues in his Christmas Day speech at the Vatican, saying "precisely where the incarnate son of God came into the world, tensions and violence persist."

He urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct peace talks and prayed for the success of recent UN resolutions for peace in Syria and Libya. The Pontiff also condemned "brutal acts of terrorism", singling out France, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Mali and also referenced conflicts in Ukraine, Colombia, Yemen, Iraq, Burundi, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And in an appeal to Roman Catholics he urged them not to become "intoxicated" by possessions.

Reminding Catholics that Jesus was "born into poverty in a manger despite his divinity", he said: "In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential.

"Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy."

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