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Gaza’s Christmas Gatherings Canceled by Pandemic, but Some Public-Minded Initiatives Flourish

[Gaza City] Eyad Albozom, the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, announced on Wednesday that it “will halt public Christmas celebrations in the Strip, like in most countries that have done the same due to the exceptional circumstance that the world is experiencing in light of the spread of the corona pandemic.”

The novel coronavirus continues to spread at a devastating pace in Gaza.

“For the public’s safety, all churches will be shuttered [to the public] until further notice, Youssef Asaad, deputy pastor of the Gaza-based Catholic Church of the Holy Family, told The Media Line.

Catholic Church of the Holy Family in central Gaza, Dec. 23, 2020. (Hassan Esleih)

“Rituals and Christmas activities will be held in the church with the attendance of a very limited number of nuns and priests, approximately 17 members only, and streamed live,” he said.

There are 1,032 Christians in the Gaza Strip, 130 of whom are Catholic, with the remainder being Orthodox Christians, according to Asaad.

The members of the Christian community in the Strip are so distressed that some families have not even obtained the traditional holiday tree.

“There is no Christmas spirit this year,” Nabil Ayyad, an Orthodox guard at St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza City, told The Media Line. “Indeed, I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. We have no option but to congratulate each other by phone.”

Ayyad confirmed that Orthodox churches would be closed.

Still, the churches are doing their best to bring some kind of joy to the blue Christmas, especially for the children who have been eagerly waiting for it.

“In coordination with nuns and with [volunteers dressed as] Santa Claus, we’ve already started distributing Christmas gifts for children at their homes to make them feel the Christmas spirit,” Asaad said.

Christians are not the only ones disappointed by the holiday season.

Zain Abdo, the owner of the Safeer Alhob gift stores, told The Media Line this year was the worst he could remember.

“We were counting on the Christmas season to make up our losses during the pandemic period, but because of the lockdown measures, the harsh economic situation and the ongoing decline of the Christian population, we couldn’t do it. This year’s profit is 70% less than last year’s,” Abdo said.

Some people, though, have managed to make the best of things, despite the crisis and the hardships.

Samah Alnamlah is the West Bank-based founder of Hekayat Kheit (“The Story of a Thread”) sewing enterprise that aims to economically empower and support the most vulnerable women in the Gaza Strip, such as divorced and battered women, as well as female cancer patients, by domestically and internationally marketing their hand-made embroidered products, including Christmas masks.

“I’ve always believed in Gazan women and I know in my heart that they have great potential and creativity,” she told The Media Line. “Women there, cancer patients in particular, are marginalized, abandoned for the most part, and feel like they are a burden on others. That is why they must be economically empowered to be productive and independent.”

To that end, she started Hekayat Kheit, where nearly 40 women work together, using a modern approach, making traditional Palestinian embroidered handicrafts, masks, bags, and a variety of clothing items.

Sohad Saydam, a tailor and a lecturer on embroidery art, is in charge of the technical part of the operation and runs the work in Gaza. She told The Media Line that when the Christmas season approached, they decided to make Christmas masks so that in addition to supporting the female worker, they could demonstrate unity with the Christian community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to show solidarity and to encourage our Christian brothers and friends to celebrate safely during Christmas by wearing our masks,” Saydam said.

A Christmas-themed mask made by Hekayat Kheit. (Sohad Saydam)

Saydam, a breast cancer survivor, told The Media Line this is not the first time they have run a business to support females, including cancer patients, in Gaza.

“Just before making the Christmas masks, we participated in the Pink October event to support cancer patients. We have made nearly 450 Health Ministry-authorized masks embroidered with pink ribbons and the profits went to help buy medicines for female cancer patients.”

The masks sell for an average of around $10 in the West Bank and in the export marker, and nearly $4 in the Gaza Strip, according to Alnamlah.

Since November, Alnamlah, Saydam and the 40-member team have sold more than a thousand masks, including Christmas masks, most of them exported to countries such as France, Britain and Canada.

“At its peak, the number of female workers has reached 60. I’m very happy that despite the many challenges, including the lockdown measures and the shortage of materials, we were able to help more and more women,” Saydam said.