FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Christians around the world were scrambling on Christmas Eve to put aside the worries and fears of an unstable, war-torn world as they prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Before leading Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan reminded the faithful to keep the war-torn regions of the Middle East in their Christmas prayers.
“As we anticipate Christmas, our hearts always turn to the Holy Land,” he said, referring to parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories. “The Holy Land is under a cloud, the Holy Land is suffering, the Holy Land is filled with violence, hatred and retaliation. And that dulls and threatens to snuff out the joy of Christmas.”
Syrian believers gathered in a country that still suffers from the consequences of a long civil war and a stifling economic blockade. Despite the festive lights and Christmas decorations adorning homes and storefronts in the capital Damascus, events in Gaza and ongoing fighting in parts of the country have left the holiday atmosphere subdued.
In Yabroud, a town north of Damascus, worshipers gathered at the Cathedral of Saint Constantine and Helen to listen to Christmas carols sung by the Damascus Joy Choir. “Everyone should try, with what the Lord has given them, to spread joy to help end this sorrow,” said choir member Fadi Homsi.
Prosperous, mostly secular Europe marked the holiday in historic cathedrals and well-lit holiday markets, with an undertone of tension spread by the war in Gaza and by that even closer to home, in the neighboring Ukraine. Wages that have yet to catch up with inflation have dampened the mood during the pre-holiday shopping and dining season.
Tourist-only visits were banned at Germany’s iconic cathedral in Cologne and Christmas Eve worshipers were subject to security checks to access midnight mass on Sunday as police responded to indications of an attack potential. Officials nevertheless urged people not to hesitate to celebrate the holidays out of fear.
The next day, Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhaeuser greeted those attending services with a relaxed smile and thanking them for the police security efforts. the police descended on the cathedral and I searched it with sniffer dogs. With several dozen officers on duty outside, he said it was “probably the most secure church service in all of Germany.”
In Austria, police said they were also beefing up security around churches and Christmas markets in Vienna, apparently in response to the same reports of a potential threat. They did not provide further information, but the dpa news agency reported, without citing a source, that the threat came from an Islamic extremist group.
Cologne’s imposing cathedral, whose twin spiers rise 157 meters (515 feet) high, is a major tourist destination visited by some 6 million people a year. It houses the Shrine of the Three Kings, a gold and silver decorated coffin said to contain the relics of the wise men described in the New Testament as honoring the newborn Jesus.
The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, notified on December 5 that Europe faces a “huge risk of terrorist attacks” over the Christmas holidays due to the fallout from war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Johansson provided no details about police or security information that may have led to his warning.
Ukraine is preparing to officially mark Christmas as a public holiday on December 25 for the first time after aligning the date with Western European countries. President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law in July moving the holiday from January 7 to December 25, when it is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church as well as one of two competing Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Some Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the ancient Julian calendar, according to which Christmas falls 13 days later.
A note attached to the law said its goal was “to abandon Russian heritage” and cited “the desire of all Ukrainians to live their lives with their own traditions and holidays.”
“The nights before Christmas are the longest of the year. However, the day has already begun to lengthen and light has begun to prevail. The light becomes stronger. Darkness will lose in the end. Evil will be defeated,” Zelenskyy said in a video speech on Sunday.
In the Punjab province of eastern Pakistan, Christians whose homes were destroyed or damaged by a Muslim mob in August, celebrated against a backdrop of fear in the town of Jaranwala. Christians fled their homes to escape the attackers and returned to the scenes of destruction.
Ratan Bhatti, a resident of Jaranwala, said Christmas would not be like before. “In the old days, every house was lit and decorated with stars,” he said. “People still live in fear and grief. Our largest church was burned. It’s hard to forget that day.
The carnage was one of the most destructive attacks on Christians in Pakistan’s history and sparked nationwide condemnation. The minoritywho are among Pakistan’s poorest, face an increasingly intolerant atmosphere in the predominantly Muslim country, where radical religious and sectarian groups have become more prominent.
Local priest Khalid Mukhtar said the residents of Jaranwala were yet to come out of their trauma. “We have yet to see the traditional spirit of Christmas. We try to motivate people to celebrate the festival with traditional fervour.
“We are determined to celebrate it,” Mukhtar added.
Shaheen reported from Yabroud, Syria and Bhatti reported from Jaranwala, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Katie Marie Davies in London and Hannah Schoenbaum in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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