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Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, will skip Christmas festivities this year


Bethlehem, long revered as the birthplace of Jesus, is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And as the war between Israel and Hamas continues, Christian leaders in Bethlehem say the city will skip Christmas festivities this year in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Munther Isaac and Tamar Haddad, two of those Christian leaders, join us now. Thank you for being with us.

TAMAR HADDAD: Thank you for having us.

MUNTHER ISAAC: Yeah. Thank you.

KHALID: Munther, I want to start with you. What does it mean to not celebrate Christmas? Why have you all decided to do that?

ISAAC: Because it's impossible to celebrate when our people are going through a genocide. And we're sending a message - enough, enough. We hope this war ends as soon as possible.

KHALID: So no lights, no decorations?

ISAAC: Nothing. No lights, no decorations. No one feels - no one is in a mood to celebrate.

KHALID: Tamar, you're here in the studio with me at NPR because, this week, you all came to Washington, D.C. You met with lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill and officials in the White House to press them on a cease-fire. What response, if any, did you all receive?

HADDAD: I mean, it depends on which staffers we talked to. Some were completely against a cease-fire, especially on the Republican side, as you may know. It was actually tough having some of these conversations with them, focusing on eradicating Hamas and not really caring about all the civilian casualties in Gaza.

ISAAC: If the United States government, which boasts itself and religious freedom and protecting religious communities and so much talk about that - if they're not willing to consider a letter signed by the churches in Bethlehem and a trip precisely for that, then I think that's an indictment to policymakers in USA more than it is about our message itself.

HADDAD: It's devastating to feel like - you know, we've spent a whole week here trying to talk as much as we could, calling for a cease-fire, meeting with as many people as we could, and then the day after, you see no results.

KHALID: Earlier, you mentioned you met with Republican staffers on Capitol Hill. You know, I cover politics. That is my day job. And one thing that I think is very clear is in American politics, there's certainly a movement on the religious right amongst Republicans. Did you have or feel any sense of sympathy because you're coming to this conversation as Christians?

ISAAC: I would say that for many in the religious right, their political allegiance actually trumps any concern or sympathy with Christians in the Middle East in general, but definitely Palestinian Christians. They will show care and even advocacy when Christians are persecuted in other places, especially if they are persecuted by radical Muslims. Yet when we come and say, but it's happening in Jerusalem from radical Jews, actually, we don't get the same reaction.

KHALID: One argument I've heard from lawmakers here in Washington, and certainly we hear this from the Israelis as well, is that a cease-fire could result in Hamas just regrouping and preparing more strikes and atrocities in Israel. And so this is a sort of fundamental argument we hear about why a cease-fire ought not to be something that the U.S. government is pushing for. You seemed not to be convinced by this argument.

ISAAC: I mean, tell me, how is the killing of more than 6,000 children a response to October 7? What is happening has went way beyond a response to those. It's a vengeance campaign. And when we use words like genocide to describe it, we're only echoing the declared intentions of Israeli politicians about this war. They are clear about the intentions of this war. And then you look at what is taking place actually on the ground with the killings and the displacement of people - I think that in itself is enough to answer, is this an attempt to eradicate Hamas? I don't think it is. It's beyond that.

KHALID: I know you all sent a letter as well to President Biden. Can you read us just a short excerpt from that letter? I want people to get a sense of what your message was.

ISAAC: Yeah. Well, we were told he got it. Let's hope that's true. The letter was written by representatives, as I said, of the churches in Bethlehem - Orthodox Catholics, Armenian Assyrians, Melkites and Lutherans. And I have the letter with me. (Reading) For years, as followers of Jesus, we have called for peace that is based on justice. This land has been crying for peace and justice for 75 years. It is time justice is served. It is time everybody can live with dignity in this land. The Palestinian and Israeli children deserve to live, hope and dream. Dear Mr. President, there can be no peace and security without justice and equality. There can be no peace and security without equal rights for all. Siege, violence and war cannot bring peace and security. A comprehensive and just peace is the only hope for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

KHALID: Have you all visited or met or written a letter at all with the leadership of Hamas or any of the, say, outside countries who have some influence over Hamas?

ISAAC: No, we have not. We don't have direct access. But at the same time, I think this goes back to the whole idea that Israel allowed Hamas to flourish in the last years, allowed funding to get into Hamas as an attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority and to keep the Palestinians divided. So we have not reached out to them.

KHALID: Before I let you both go - Munther, you live in Bethlehem, and, Tamar, I believe you're in Jerusalem - how has day-to-day life been for you all there?

HADDAD: I mean, in Jerusalem, when the 7th happened, I'd say I haven't left my house for a month and a half because it did not feel safe, mostly because there are settlers who are attacking Palestinians. And a lot of killings also happened, even in the West Bank. And I'll let Pastor Munther talk about that.

ISAAC: Yeah. It's been really horrible in the West Bank since October 7, a massive wave of arrests of Palestinians who have been put in administrative detention without trial, and extensive siege and checkpoints on every town and in every Palestinian area. Actually, this is something we raised in our visit with policymakers, that while the focus is on Gaza, there has been so much military raid and so much settler violence in the West Bank, to the extent that it's really became dangerous for us to walk from one place to the other.

KHALID: That's Munther Isaac. We were also joined by Tamar Haddad. Both of them are Christian leaders who came to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill, as well as officials in the White House. Thank you both very much for spending the time with us.

HADDAD: Thank you.

ISAAC: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.