Well, it sounded good on paper.
A New York Times article showing us a kinder, gentler, even interfaith Hezbollah was just one of a bunch of Christmas-themed pieces that ran in the paper this past week. One standout was this depressing piece on China’s holiday crackdown on churches, orchestrated by President Xi (the Grinch) Jinping.
It was just another day for China’s 30 million underground Christians with more people tossed in jail, sanctuaries and seminaries closed for the holiday and online Bible sales prohibited. There was also this piece on the Women’s March fragmenting due to anti-Semitism.
But the strangest article was this overseas dispatch with the headline: “Christmas in Lebanon: Jesus isn’t only for the Christians.” As I will explain in a bit, the piece didn’t get the greatest reception.
BEIRUT — The Iranian cultural attaché stepped up to the microphone on a stage flanked by banners bearing the faces of Iran’s two foremost religious authorities: Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader.
To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.
“Today, we’re celebrating the birth of Christ,” the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari’tamdar, announced into the microphone, “and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”
“Hallelujah!” boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. “Jesus the savior is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace.”
“We’re celebrating a rebel,” proclaimed a third speaker, the new mufti of the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, the rebel in question being Jesus.
This being Lebanon, one can say something positive about Christianity; a luxury that Iran doesn’t allow Christians within its borders, as I wrote about recently. The audience at this event was mainly Shiite and an Iranian band was playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols; again, a luxury not allowed to Christians in Persia itself.
Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.
But few seasons frame the everyday give-and-take of religious coexistence quite like Christmastime in Lebanon.
Half the women snapping selfies with the colossal Christmas tree that stands across a downtown street from Beirut’s even more colossal blue mosque wear hijabs.
Children with veiled and unveiled mothers wait in line at the City Center mall to whisper wish lists to the mall’s Santa, and schoolchildren of all sects exchange Secret Santa gifts in class.
I wish the writer would clarify that Santa Claus isn’t a Christian concept and that the jolly Bearded One’s presence worldwide this time of year has more to do with shopping free-for-alls than religion.
These demonstrations of Christmas spirit seem intended, analysts said, to demonstrate Hezbollah’s inclusivity as a major political and military force in Lebanese society and to highlight its political alliances with Christian parties. …
Hezbollah? Seriously? Can you unpack that “political alliances with Christians” bit again? I mean, Lebanon is a complex place — but a word of explanation would be nice.
Nada Suweidan, an accountant shopping at the mall, wasn’t certain how much of her son’s wish list Santa would fulfill this year.
But Ms. Suweidan was certain of the religious propriety of her family’s Christmas celebration, which involved the whole family getting together and her brother dressing up as Santa for the children. After all, Jesus is considered a prophet in Islam.
Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But it’s a non-deified Jesus, who wasn’t even crucified because many Muslims believe another person took his place.
Still, anytime that two diametrically opposed religions can actually unite in the Middle East is probably a cause for celebration.
Christmas is by no means a universal part of the holiday calendar of observant Muslims, especially conservative ones, some of whom consider Christmas decorations and other rituals forbidden.
In previous years, Lebanese Muslims have occasionally received mass text messages or pamphlets urging them not to participate in Christmas. In 2015, according to one television news report, some Christmas trees in Tripoli, in the conservative, Sunni-majority north, were burned down.
But such instances have never happened in the Shiite south, even during Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
“We follow Imam Ali, who told us to respect other cultures,” said Ahmad Tarjoman, 48, a Beirut-based correspondent for Iranian state television who attended Saturday’s Christmas concert with his wife and his daughter, Tasnim, 5, who wore a pair of small reindeer antlers.
Aha. So it’s the Shiites who are the true interfaith warriors here. The mention of Hezbollah is what infuriated readers in a react piece by Fox News.
“Terrorists celebrated Christmas too” is an article only the New York Times would publish, is what one detractor wrote.
The Conservative Review pointed out that Hezbollah is one of the world’s most sophisticated criminal enterprises, so the Times is being naïve at best. Praising it for allowing Santa Claus is like praising the Mafia for supporting family values.
Now I see why the Times didn’t open up the piece to comments. Not that I’m totally opposed to this piece. Far from it. Better Christmas gifts, than guns, one might say.
But next time, show us that Hezbollah is appropriating Christmas for its own purposes, not celebrating it. Their Jesus is a Sandanista-style rebel against a capitalist/Zionist Israel (and America).
A few caveats on Hezbollah’s murderous past (remember the 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks that killed 307 people; mostly U.S. Marines and French peacekeepers?) would have been helpful. Context is everything here.