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Palestinian family spends Christmas together for first time in 26 years

The family enjoyed the parades and festivities at Manger Square Christmas Eve afternoon. In the evening the family gathered at their parents’ home for their traditional barbecue dinner. Michael Aqleh and his brother Faris, 44, also living in San Francisco with his family, attempted to get into midnight Mass, but they were unable to do so. Michael Aqleh had hoped that he would be able to visit Jerusalem but he said that as a Palestinian he was not permitted free access despite his American citizenship. The Israelis required that he have a special permit. He recalled how in past Christmases the entire extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles celebrated together, visiting each other’s homes and sharing meals. And there always was a visit from a friend or neighbor dressed as Santa Claus handing out gifts to the children.

“Most of my cousins are also spread out all over the place now,” he said. “They are in U.S.A., Canada, Latin America, Europe.”

Many of his friends also have left the area, he said, because that have found it difficult to deal with the challenging economic, political and social environment.

In recent decades the demographics of the Bethlehem-Beit Jalla-Beit Sahour triangle — all traditionally Christian West Bank towns — have changed as many Muslim villagers from the surrounding countryside moved into the area. Some Christians say they feel like a minority in Bethlehem, where some 80 percent of the population is now Muslim. Though relations remain largely cordial, some Christians and local Muslims say they feel the influx of villagers with more conservative traditions has changed the personality of their hometowns.

Zelfo and her younger brother, David Aqleh, 37, who also has remained near Bethlehem, said that despite the difficulties they do not have plans to leave — at least for now.

“It is a wonderful feeling to have all my brothers and sisters come back here to celebrate all together. said David Aqleh, who runs his father’s public service office translating documents and preparing passport applications. “It makes me feel stronger.”

Zelfo expressed concern that life “is not easy” in Bethlehem and acknowledged that she feels “like the minority” in the community.

“But we have something nice here,” she added. “God calls on us to stay here. He needs us here. We can always smile with Jesus as our shepherd, he is our joy and our strength. Without him we could not make it. Tonight we appreciate celebrating together.”

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