Ayyad in Manger Square
Ayyad in Manger Square
Photo: AFP
Milad Ayyad touches the icon of the Virgin and Child at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity

Celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem - a double blessing for one Gazan

In first trip outside of Gaza Strip in two decades, Greek Orthodox Milad Ayyad visits birthplace of Jesus Christ for first time, sightseeing Christian world's most important places and monuments

AFP |
Published: 12.28.21, 15:52
The day before Christmas Eve, Israeli authorities gave Milad Ayyad, who is now 30, a blue slip allowing him to visit the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.
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  • "It's a great joy to (finally) get a permit," said Ayyad ,adding that he had tried for years to secure a permit but to no avail.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Milad Ayyad, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian from Gaza, touches the icon of the Virgin and Child for a blessing at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    Milad Ayyad, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian from Gaza, touches the icon of the Virgin and Child for a blessing at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    Milad Ayyad touches the icon of the Virgin and Child at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    (Photo: AFP)
    "I have been hoping to go to Bethlehem for a long time now to celebrate (Christmas) with my relatives whom I haven't seen in years."
    He is one of 500 Christians from Gaza who have been permitted by Israeli authorities to travel to the West Bank for the holidays this year.
    The permit to exit the impoverished Gaza Strip, which has been blockaded by Israel for 15 years, came too late for him to organize to be there on Christmas Day.
    Like most Christian Gazans, Ayyad is a Greek Orthodox who usually marks Christmas Day on January 7, meaning he can still look forward to more holiday cheer.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Ayyad in Manger Square
    Ayyad in Manger Square
    Ayyad in Manger Square
    (Photo: AFP)
    "The celebrations in the city of peace, Bethlehem, are special," said Ayyad, a student of history whose first name means "birth".
    "They can't be compared to those in Gaza, which only take place behind the church walls with just a mass."
    Unlike war-scarred Gaza, he said, Bethlehem is full of "joy... even its streets have more spirit than Gaza".
    The number of Christians in Gaza has been in decline for years, many of them having emigrated, particularly after the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
    According to local church officials, there remain only about 1,000 Christians in the enclave, compared to 7,000 before 2007.
    Until the last minute, Ayyad's journey appeared rife with pitfalls.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Ayyad, taking a "selfie" in Manger Square
    Ayyad, taking a "selfie" in Manger Square
    Ayyad taking selfie in Manger Square
    (Photo: AFP)
    To begin with, the Israeli authorities had not indicated when the permit would be issued, leaving matters uncertain. He then had to call his uncle to make sure he was prepared to receive him at his home in Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem.
    On his first trip outside of the Gaza Strip in two decades Ayyad walked along the colonnade at the Greek Basilica, the Church of the Nativity
    This was followed by organizing his trip up to the Erez crossing point to Israel, a mission requiring nerves of steel to make it through the massive ultra-secure barrier that resembles an airport terminal.
    But his biggest challenge by far was convincing his father, Suhail Ayyad, that he would be able to make the trip alone.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Ayyad walks along the colonnade at the Greek Basilica, the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad walks along the colonnade at the Greek Basilica, the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad walks along the colonnade at the Greek Basilica, the Church of the Nativity
    (Photo: AFP)
    "I care about my sons like the apples of my eyes," said the father, who suffers from a serious illness.
    In the courtyard of their Gaza home, where an unreliable supply of electricity causes their Christmas tree lights to flicker erratically, it took a group effort to convince Ayyad's father that the trip is safe.
    Even a loquacious neighbor chimed in, insisting that so long as Ayyad had a permit, there was no risk.
    On the day of the grand departure, the young man, who did not recall ever having seen an Israeli, peered out at signs pointing the way to Israeli cities.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Ayyad kneels before the 14-pointed star marking the birthplace of Jesus, according to tradition, inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad kneels before the 14-pointed star marking the birthplace of Jesus, according to tradition, inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad kneels before the 14-pointed star marking the birthplace of Jesus, according to tradition, inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity
    (Photo: AFP)
    Sporting a heavy coat to protect himself from "the cold of Bethlehem", he gazed admiringly at the greenery, remarking that "there are no forests like these in Gaza".
    Ayyad arrived in Bethlehem the day after Christmas.
    The number of Christians gathered in Manger Square doubtlessly far outnumbered those in all Gaza.
    Ayyad took a selfie in front of the giant Christmas tree, visited the Church of the Nativity, lit a candle, and knelt at the cave where Jesus Christ is said to have been born.
    His trip to Bethlehem marked a brief relief from his life in crisis-hit Gaza.
    6 צפייה בגלריה
    Ayyad, at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad, at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    Ayyad at the Greek Basilica at the Church of the Nativity
    (Photo: AFP)
    The impoverished coastal enclave is still emerging from the effects of war between Hamas and Israel seven months ago, the victims of which "we still mourn", Ayyad said.
    Despite not having boarded a plane or suffered jet lag, his trip from one Palestinian territory to another gave him the impression of having "travelled from one country to another".
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