It is a divine blessing that this year we are coincidentally celebrating the birth of Jesus and the birth of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them, for the first time in centuries. On this day, billions around the world celebrate the birth of two great messengers of love, hope, justice and peace.
Jesus is a symbol for all Palestinians. Palestine and its people take pride in being the birthplace of Christianity and having the oldest Christian community in the world.
Christmas is a message of hope which should prevail even during the difficult times that our nation, and the world, are facing. In Bethlehem this year, Palestinians will celebrate Christmas surrounded by eighteen illegal settlements and an annexation wall, which are taking over their land. Over the past few months, we have seen how the Israeli government has continued to consolidate an Apartheid regime by accelerating policies which destroy the two-state solution. And yet, Palestinians continue to defy the daily oppression imposed by their occupier with steadfastness and love for their country.
In 2015 we were able to finalize a landmark agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine; an agreement that is unique in our region. In the agreement, we ratified the historic status quo of the Churches in Palestine, as well as our respect for the principles of freedom of worship. The Holy See knows well that Christians are not a minority in Palestine; they are an integral part of our social fabric.
Through this agreement we also seek to empower the work of the local church, with hundreds of priests, nuns and monks, who have dedicated their lives to the education, health and well-being of the Palestinian people. In particular I would like to mention Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah, a national symbol, whom the State of Palestine has decorated with the Star of Jerusalem Order.
In 2015, Palestine was blessed with the Canonization of two Palestinian nuns, Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Baouardi. We are proud not only because they are daughters of our nation, but also because of the contribution of their communities to our rich and diverse society.
This year, we witnessed more churches around the world supporting the call for recognition of the State of Palestine, and an increasing number of Christian groups campaigning to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of our land. We would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank all involved.
Several parliaments have also recommended that their governments recognize the State of Palestine, including most recent- ly the parliament of Greece. We thank all countries that have taken the constructive step to recognize the State of Palestine and we ask those who have not yet recognized our state to do so, as an investment in peace. As a consequence of internation- al solidarity with Palestine, during 2015 we were able to raise our flag at the United Nations Headquarters, just as it had been raised previously at the Holy See.
This Christmas comes during a particularly difficult period, when international intervention is desperately needed to protect the Palestinian people. Extremist Israeli settlers continue to attack Palestinians, including their mosques and church- es, through acts of vandalism and terror. The twin cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been separated for the first time in over 2000 years of Christianity, resulting in incalculable damage to Palestinian society, culture and economy. Millions of Palestinians, as well as Christian and Muslim Arabs from the rest of the region, are not allowed to visit Jerusalem due to the Israeli occupation. There can be no Palestinian State without East Jerusalem as its capital, reunited with Bethlehem and the rest of Palestine.
Despite their prayers and other forms of peaceful protest against Israel’s colonialist plans, Palestinian Christians in Beit Jala were forced to watch as Israeli forces began the construction of the illegal Annexation Wall on their land, uprooting their historic olive trees in Cremisan. Recently, new expropriation orders have been issued against Bethlehemites, as plans were announced for settlement infrastructure in the Western Bethlehem Area. We will persist with our legitimate tools to end the occupation. We are not asking for anything more or anything less than what international law grants our people.
We reiterate our condemnation of the terror brought by Daesh, and other terrorist groups, and we support actions taken against them. We express our solidarity with the peoples who have been affected by their evil actions, and particularly with the millions of refugees who were forced to leave their homes in search of safety. The use of any religion for political purpos- es is absolutely unacceptable and must be fought. Within the Palestinian context, we call upon the international community to stop Israeli attempts at turning a difficult but solvable political issue into an impossible religious war.
Once again, we pray for the end of occupation and Apartheid in order to resurrect justice in our Holy Country. Ending decades of exile and oppression is a must in order to bring peace to our region. On the Holy Occasion of Christmas, I salute all Palestinians wherever they are, hoping for the day that they will be able to live, worship and be free in their home- land.
“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace”