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Christmas and Jesus in the rubble with the poor and the downtrodden of Gaza

Smoke from bombs pollute the Gaza sky.  Dust, soot and blood on the tender face of the baby. The instinctive cry of a baby for its mother whose gentle fingers will never rub the baby’s face or ruffle her hair. The sweet scent of motherly love is too short to even be a memory for the baby of Gaza. The motherless war child is born in the rubble of Gaza.  The baby tries to sleep on the hard ground in Mawasi to the sound of F35’s. F16’s, bunker busting bombs, the screams of death as life leaves bodies and bones are shredded and mutilated. Red blood flows over the cold grey of rubble. Anguish cries from the heart of humans to the sight of their beloved pierce through the skies. The baby cries pangs of hunger. No one is there to hold her in the cold terrors of the night.

In New York, London and other middle class bourgeois neighbourhoods, the baby smiles covered in baby powder and cuddly clothes. Smiling cutely. Clasping its mothers fingers tenderly, looking in the loving eyes of its mother, feeling the beautiful and tender love of a mother. Sleeping to the sweet sounds of a lullaby and soft caress in the stillness and peace of night. The baby smiles and sleeps like an angel and burps after having swallowed its baby food. The mother sighs and sips camomile tea as she retires contently to bed.

“If Christ was born today, he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling” says Pastor Munther Isaacs of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. In a Christmas nativity scene, in the church in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, a baby Jesus is wrapped in a Palestinian Kaffiyeh surrounded by rubble. The image is powerfully symbolic and captures the heart and mind simultaneously as a symbol of the Palestinian child killed unjustly every ten minutes by the Israeli Occupation. Pastor Isaacs says “Christ was born under occupation”. This year Palestinian Christians have cancelled Christmas celebrations and holiday festivities in solidarity with the people of Gaza. There will be no festive parade, no Christmas lights and no lively colourful decorated tree in Manger square. Bethlehem which is in the West Bank bears witness to the horrors of Occupation.  There are now about 150 illegal Zionist settlements encroaching upon the peace and native territorial integrity of the West Bank. Approximately 20 percent of Bethlehem’s population is Christian.  Bethlehem is now hemmed in by Israel’s “security barrier” and checkpoints. Pastor Isaacs says ‘This year we are not celebrating Christmas, it is impossible to celebrate with a genocide happening in our country”.

Recent days have shone a spotlight on the suffering and heroic resistance of Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation. Last weekend, two Christian women sheltering at a Roman Catholic Church in Gaza were brazenly gunned down and killed by Israeli snipers. Gaza’s oldest church St Porphyries was hit by Israeli shelling killing at least 16 of the refugees taking shelter there.

Pastor Isaacs delivered a letter from the churches of Palestine asking Joe Biden, Congress and the US churches to apply Christ’s message regarding injustice and called for an end to the genocidal war. In speaking truth to power, he is ideologically inspired by Jesus who was aligned to the poor, downtrodden, dispossessed and disaffected peoples of the earth and who took issue with an unjust economic and political system. Jesus who was with the people and on the side of justice and truth and opposed the powerful political and economic elites. This was in fact the position of all Abrahamic prophets who were located amongst the poor and the downtrodden and who were persecuted by the central authorities and capitalists of their time.  In South Africa in the struggle against apartheid, the committed celebrated cadres of this Abrahamic traditions in Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Timol, Chief Albert Luthuli, Albie Sachs, Imam Abdullah Haroon and Ronnie Kasrils amongst many others devoted their life to the struggle against apartheid, capitalism, imperialism and racism. Those who advocate for social justice and a democratized economy are inspired by the activism of Jesus when he resisted capitalism and kicked the tables of the wealthy capitalist bankers and money lenders who concentrated wealth only among the few (The 1%) . The American theologian Howard Yoder describes the persecution of Jesus as ‘the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling the society”.

There are now more than twenty thousand Palestinians slaughtered by the Israeli Occupation since October 7. The wealthiest governments of the world like the U.S and the U.K are supporting the Zionist state both militarily, economically and politically. They are now doing a diplomatic dance in calling for a pause and refusing to call and implement a cessation of hostilities which is an end to the war and killing of children. Pastor Isaacs a sincere, devout and committed believer has demonstrated the responsibility of a servant of God.  When a child in Gaza is killed every ten minutes and the superpowers refuse to call for a cessation of hostilities and an end to the war, they are called out by the righteous pastor whose voice resonates with the people of the world.  The oppressors may escape prosecution in the legal systems governing this world but what will their answer be when they stand before God and are asked for what reason was the innocent child killed? What about other religious leaders who are silent during this genocide and refuse to take a stand for truth and justice? Where is Mogoeng Mogoeng’s self righteous voice?   There is currently a delegation of South African Christian religious leaders who are in Bethlehem in solidarity with the Palestinians among the veteran anti-apartheid activist Reverend Frank Chikane, Dean Michael Weeder of St Georges Cathedral and Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana , the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. The churches statement in solidarity with Gaza states ‘Then the land was under occupation by the Roman Empire. Now the occupier is the state of Israel. Then Kind Herod carried out a genocide of boys under the age of 2. Now Israel is carrying out a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza which is now spilling over to the West Bank and more than 800 children have been killed”.

Pastor Isaacs implores us all Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindu and people of all scriptural persuasions to check our spirituality and conscience in this festive period where everyone is naturally inclined to rest after a hardworking year, be happy and celebrate with family and friends.  How can we feast on meals when the starving people of Gaza are bombed to death in a genocidal war and almost two million people are displaced, starving and homeless, where so many of our fellow citizens in this country are jobless, landless, hungry and homeless? How do we drink expensive wine and drinks when the poor people of Gaza are denied water and so many of our citizens do not have access to water? How can we be ‘happy” when millions of Gazans have been permanently psychologically scarred because of the barbaric war and many people in our country and the world over are depressed, down and suicidal?

When we are with our family and friends this festive period, it’s hard not to imagine families of Gaza that have lost members of their family, picking up body parts of their beloved family members underneath the rubble. Every one of the twenty thousand Palestinians killed was someone’s child, brother, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, friend and lover. Each one was loved by someone. They are all people whose life was deliberately and unjustly ended, not just numbers beneath the rubble.

The baby Jesus in a Palestinian Keffiyeh in the rubble, reminds us that Palestinians are people and human like everyone else. Like everyone else they have a right to freedom, self-determination and to resist the occupation. For seventy five years now, they are occupied and colonized without a Palestinian State. As Bob Dylan asks in “Blowing in the wind “How many years can some people exist before they allowed to be free”

Iqbal Suleman

Suleman is a social justice lawyer and former head of the law clinic for Lawyers for Human Rights in Pretoria.