Gazans celebrate Christmas tinged with sadness

Still threatened by Islamic extremists

GAZA CITY - A garland in hand, 11-year-old Sara decorates the family Christmas tree with her parents. But this year, the young Gazan will be spending the rest of the holiday alone.
Her family applied for Israeli permits to leave the Gaza Strip and travel to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in the not-so-little town in the West Bank where Jesus was born.
Although her parents received them, she and her older brother and sister did not.
This year, Israel granted around 500 permits to Palestinian Christians, allowing them to travel from Gaza to the West Bank so they can visit Bethlehem's Nativity church and attend the traditional midnight mass.
"Christmas is a happy time but it's also a bit sad because I didn't get the permit to go with my parents," Sara admits.
Her mother, Abeer Mussad, spoke of a "joy tinged with sadness" as she and her husband celebrate Christmas Day in Bethlehem without their children who will on Thursday be "meeting Santa at church in Gaza".
"He will give us our presents," says Sara who will stay with her older sister and celebrate Christmas at St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City.
In Gaza, the adults have done everything they can to ensure the holiday is not spoilt, but nobody can forget the deadly 50-day summer war which killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and left the densely populated territory in ruins.
"We're going to celebrate Christmas in order to forget the suffering of the war," says 60-year-old Umm George, who lost her sister in the conflict and will be one of those travelling to Bethlehem.
In streets which still bear the scars of war, shops are spruced up with Christmas decorations and ornamented trees covered in sweets take pride of place in front windows. - Heart not in it -
For most of Gaza's tiny community of some 3,500 Christians, 85 percent of whom are Greek Orthodox, they must make do with celebrating at home after failing to obtain the small slip of paper issued by Israel which would have allowed them to leave the enclave and travel the 70 kilometres (43 miles) to Bethlehem.
Abdullah Jakhan is one of them.
He and his fiancee Janet applied to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, but they were both turned down. Now they will have to make do in Gaza.
Just four months after the end of the war, it would be inappropriate to engage in too much celebration, Jakhan says.
"We want a joyful celebration, but the blood of the martyrs which flowed during the war is still fresh. Because of this we can't be completely happy," he said.
"We will celebrate mass and have a small, simple party with family and friends in light of the circumstances in Gaza."
Tony al-Masri, 60, has also just put up a tree at home but his heart isn't really in it.
"Inside, I feel sad for my people who have suffered a war," he says.
"The war affected all of us here, Christians and Muslims, so today I am praying for peace and unity."
But other concerns also feature at the top of their prayer list.
George, 38, who prefers not to give his family name, is praying for an end to Islamic extremism and attacks on Christians.
"Even if there aren't many of them, like those in the Islamic State movement, they don't want us to celebrate our Christian feasts," he says.
"And they wouldn't hesitate to attack us, as they have already done," he adds, referring to an incident in February when unidentified attackers left an explosive device inside the compound of the Church of the Latin Convent in Gaza City.