Last week, The Guardian told the story of the Qubrsi brothers — two of approximately 1,400 Christians residing in Gaza today. Brothers Karam and Peter are currently the only members of their family still in Gaza. Their sisters Rani and Mai fled to Bethlehem in 2007 after the manager of Gaza’s Bible Society Bookstore, where their husbands worked, was shot dead by radical Islamists; their parents are in Israel, where their mother receives treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Like every Christmas since the Hamas takeover in 2007, the Qubrsi brothers are prohibited from celebrating the holiday openly. When Hamas took control, Christmas lost its status as a public holiday, and public displays of non-Muslim worship were banned. Peter tells the story of having been harassed and threatened with arrest by a Hamas official for wearing a wooden cross around his neck. The city square that once was home to a large communal Christmas tree is now empty. The brothers celebrate quietly in their living room.
Although Karam and Peter hoped to travel to Bethlehem — the traditional birthplace of Jesus — for the holidays, Israel limits the number of exits from Gaza at 500 people, and only those below the age of 16 and above 35 are eligible to leave. They hope for a day when the Palestinian Authority will return to power to “take revenge” and put an end to the religious persecution.
Religious intolerance in Gaza also causes hardships beyond a doleful Christmas.
Peter told The Guardian, “This is not a Christian environment. There are no good universities, there is no opportunity to work, no apartments to rent and so no way we can get married. We have no future here.”
Nazareth Illit — or Upper Nazareth — is a Jewish town in northern Israel that overlooks the larger Israeli Arab city of Nazareth proper. About one third of the 70,000 inhabitants of Nazareth — the city in which Jesus grew up — are Christian; the rest are Muslim. In recent years, the heights of Upper Nazareth have attracted more Christian Arab residents, who now comprise about fifteen percent of the population.
This Christmas, Mayor Shimon Gapso of the mostly Jewish Upper Nazareth has declared that there shall be no public displays of Christmas trees or any other non-Jewish symbols in his town.
“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish town and all its symbols are Jewish,” said Mayor Gapso. “As long as I hold office, no non-Jewish symbol will be presented in the city.”
Gapso was approached by Arab members of the city council, including Muslim members, who pointed out that Christmas trees serve no other purpose than to spread happiness and that Jewish Chanukkiyot (Menorahs) are displayed is numerous American cities that are not designated as Jewish. Gapso’s response was, “Let them go down to Lower Nazareth.”
Gapso’s ban on Christian worship in his town seems to fly in the face of Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which guarantees religious rights to people of all faiths in Israel.
The mayor’s actions have incensed Arab and Jewish Israelis alike.
Yuval Ben-Ami, a writer for +972 Magazine writes, “By declaring Upper Nazareth Christmas resistant, Mayor Gapso exposes the great insecurity and confusion of the Jewish state. If the only way to maintain the Jewish character of his town is by showing complete lack of tolerance and resisting integration of its non-Jewish residents, then Upper Nazareth is in fact a self-imposed ghetto, walled by fear and intolerance and so, by extension, is the entire state of Israel.”
This is not the first time that Shimon Gapso has faced such accusations. Earlier this year, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) petitioned Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to have Mayor Gapso removed from office for having told an Arab newspaper that if he had been present during the October 2000 clashes between Israeli Arabs and police, more Arabs would have been killed.