- (Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Christmas celebrations have been growing in popularity and size in Israel despite protests from religious groups and government officials who cite tenets in Judaism and Islam that prohibit the acknowledgment and celebration of Christ’s birth.
A burgeoning Christian community comprised mostly of Filipino laborers and African pilgrims is celebrating the holiday in public spaces and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Christmas trees and festive songs abound from bus stations, storefronts and otherwise inconspicuous churches, tucked under apartment buildings and into street corners.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a Christmas greeting to Christians in the country and welcomed those abroad to celebrate the holiday in Israel.
“Israel is proud of its strong and growing Christian community and we’re proud of the deep and passionate support of so many Christian Israel supporters around the world,” Netanyahu said.
“In a region where Christians are routinely persecuted and where there is little tolerance for the faith of others, Israel safeguards the holy places of the great religions and ensures freedom of worship for all,” he said before listing sites in Israel that Christian tourists might find appealing.
However, some local government officials and religious leaders are upset about the increasing number of Christmas celebrations.
Shimon Gaspo, mayor of Nazareth Illit, or Upper Nazareth, spoke against the request of Arab Christians – who comprise a minority in the country – to place Christmas trees in a largely Jewish area.
“The request of the Arabs to put Christmas trees in the squares in the Arab quarter of Nazareth Illit is provocative," Gaspo told AFP. "Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city and it will not happen -- not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor.”
“Nazareth is right next door and they can do what they want there,” Gaspo added.
There are about 110,000 Arab Christians in Israel, who make up about 2 percent of the country’s population. With more Jews and Muslims in the country, Christians are at theological odds with the overwhelming majority.
Increased violence from Israeli authorities against Palestinian groups has also affected the national mood.
Amnesty International released a report earlier this month detailing the alleged offenses of Jewish authorities toward Palestinian communities along the West Bank. Of the heftier allegations, Israel is accused of demolishing homes, replacing Palestinian areas with Jewish settlements and threatening or committing violence.
Though the violence is generally localized and appears not to be necessarily anti-Christian, Israel, which boasts religious plurality, remains shaky during the Christmas season.
The majority of Christian pilgrims stay throughout the year in Israel but according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, as much as 54 percent of the country’s tourists are Christian.