Credit: Tbass Efendi
Bethlehem is beautiful at Christmas. The streets are festooned with lights and decorations, the restaurants and cafés are crowded, and the local shops do a roaring trade in trinkets, icons and glittery tat for the visiting hordes of tourists and pilgrims.
Most visitors quickly find themselves at the Church of the Nativity, which according to some Christians is built on the exact spot where Jesus was born.
The church dates back to the fourth century, making it one of the oldest surviving churches in the world. Whatever your faith, it has a powerful atmosphere, almost undiminished by the tidal waves of visitors who descend on Bethlehem at this time of year from all over the world, including of course the Middle East.
There are some 15 million Christians throughout the Middle East, and up to 90,000 Christians in Palestine. Christian Palestinians make up less than 2.4 per cent of the overall population of Palestine, including a tiny population of around 3,500 Christians in the Gaza Strip. The Christians of Gaza are mostly Greek Orthodox, but there are also several hundred Catholics, plus a smattering of Baptists. Orthodox Christians officially celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, on 7 January, but every December hundreds of Gaza Christians apply for permits to travel to Bethlehem so they can celebrate Christmas in situ.
Last year 400 Gazan Christians were permitted to leave the Strip and spend their Christmas in Bethlehem. 'It was stunning, just beautiful,' one of them, Mara, told me when she came back home. The Christians who stayed in Gaza held their own Christmas services at the three churches in Gaza City. I went to the packed Catholic mass on Christmas morning last year, and remember being slightly stunned by the dozens of photographers lining the back of the church, who relentlessly snapped pictures of the congregation, especially while we were praying, until the priest politely asked them all to leave. The Christians of Gaza had become one of the big media stories of the season.
After the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Christians in Gaza were understandably nervous about what would happen to them, given Hamas' overt Islamic agenda. Three months later their fears were apparently confirmed when 32-year-old Rami Khader Ayyad, a Christian from Gaza City, was abducted, then shot and stabbed to death. Rami Ayyad had been a Christian activist working in the only Christian bookshop in the Gaza Strip, and his death stunned the entire Christian community. The press wrote reams of stories about Christians being frightened, and desperate to leave Gaza, and published photographs of them praying for peace and tolerance in the Strip. No-one has ever been charged with Rami Ayyad's murder.
When I moved to Gaza this time last year, I assumed the Christian population was living in a state of fear of the Hamas regime, and were not free to practise their faith. But I have spoken to Christians across the Gaza Strip over these last 12 months and, almost without exception, they have told me that the murder of Rami Ayyad was shocking and horrific, but that it was an isolated incident carried out by extremists. Although they remain tentative about their future, they say are not living in fear.
'We are not under threat from Hamas,' said Jusef, who regularly attends the Greek Orthodox church. 'We are Christians and they are Muslims - but we are all Gazan, and we share the same culture.'
Christians have also told me they feel relatively free to practise their religion in Gaza. Christian women do not wear the hijab, and the churches remain unguarded. Hamas' general tolerance towards Christianity underlines their moderation compared to many other Islamic movements. They are not the Taliban. This Christmas, Gazan Christians will light candles, hang decorations, exchange gifts, and sing carols, whether they are in Bethlehem or Gaza City, and will no doubt pray for their coming year in the Gaza Strip to be brighter. Happy Christmas!