Every year on the eve of January 6th, which marks Christmas for Coptic Christians, hundreds of North African refugees, based in Israel, make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to visit Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity for mass.
Last year I, being the only visible journalist and non-refugee, was fortunate enough to join this unique group of people on their journey, which began at approximately 10 p.m., when hundreds of African refugees filed into roughly 15 buses parked at Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv's south end, and ended at 5 a.m.
These refugees, who fled their countries, mostly due to religious persecution, after an unspeakable journey through North Africa, have ended up in Israel and are mostly Christians. Israel has a liberal policy on taking in refugees compared to its neighbor, Egypt. It is not uncommon for refugees to be kidnapped or murdered while making a journey through the North African countries or be killed on the borders of Egypt.
The pilgrims listened to loud religious music with origins from Eritrea and Ethiopia as the buses made their way through East Jerusalem and swiftly past the checkpoints into Bethlehem, which was completely open to the group -- not making us stop on the way in or out of the West Bank. On any other day, crossing into the West Bank can be a very long process and access is not guaranteed.
Upon arrival, Bethlehem was filled with festive Christmas lights decorated on every structure in sight while armed guards with machine guns lined the roads dressed in all black. The guards were placed every 100 feet or so starting more than a mile before the city center, Manger Square.
Once parked the refugees filled the streets of Bethlehem while vendors became very excited by the sight of visitors, trying to sell little wooden figurines and falafel balls.
Eventually all the festivities began in Manger Square with drum beating and loud prayers on intercom systems. Christmas was undoubtedly in the air this evening in Bethlehem, more than any other day.
Eventually, many people started showing up in fancy cars, and motorcades sped through the tiny streets of the Old City. These motorcades, were likely filled with diplomats and significant religious figures such as the Greek Patriarch, Syrian Archbishop, Coptic Archbishop and the Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch and All The East. Very few refugees made it into the Church, because the Church was filled with what could be perceived as 'preferred visitors.' Of all days, this was an unfortunate sight on Christmas. The African Refugees were visually the largest group of people present in Bethlehem, while they were the least represented within the Church of Nativity.
Even though being denied entrance after their long journey, the Coptic Christians from Eritrea and Ethiopia sang louder, kept smiling and celebrated near to one of the holiest place in their religion.
According to attendees, for many, this was the first time in a long while that they were able to celebrate their faith in public -- without fear of persecution.
Below are some photographs of the Christmas celebration in Bethlehem: