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This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

The History of Christmas Lutheran Church

The Evangelical Christmas Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran Church in Palestine, started in 1854 by German missionaries. Today, it is one of six Lutheran Churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

The church building was designed by August Orth and was constructed from 1886 to 1893. Orth was astonished at the precision and fine quality of the work done by the Palestinian stone cutters. The organ, stained windows, altar, and bells (donated by German Emperor Wilhelm II) were all shipped from Europe to the Middle East, and then carried from port to Bethlehem by donkey. The majority of the church was built in the final two years of construction. Unique to Christmas Lutheran Church is the shape of the bell tower, which reflects the hat a 19th century Bethlehemite woman would have worn. The church building opened on November 6, 1893. The sanctuary itself is cruciform, with a lofted organ at the back of the sanctuary.

Stained Glass

The fourteen stained glass windows are original, and were made by the Emperor Stained Glass Factory in Germany. They are the only windows made in this style by this factory to survive in total.

The three windows behind the altar tell the Christmas story the church is named for. The three windows in the left apse show the life of Christ through his baptism in the river Jordan. The window on the righthand side of the left apse depicts the flight to Egypt. This particular window, which portrays Jesus and his parents as refugees, is a powerful image for this congregation, two-thirds of whom are refugees themselves. The three windows in the right apse portray the passion and resurrection, with the crucifixion in the center. The remaining windows in the sanctuary depict Bethlehem’s biblical history and landscape.

Stained Glass and the Intifadas

During both the First and Second Intifadas, Christmas Lutheran was damaged. Despite this, all the stained glass windows are largely intact. In 1967, the roof and ceiling of the sanctuary were damaged by a bomb, but the windows were undamaged.

During the Second Intifada, in 2002, the church was in the midst of fierce Israeli shooting and bombing. Bethlehem was under curfew, and the pastor at the time, Rev. Mitri Raheb, was sheltering with his family in the parsonage. They could hear glass breaking, and feared it was the stained glass windows, but they were unable to check on the sanctuary for several days. When Rev. Raheb was finally able to enter the church, he was astounded and grateful to see that all the windows remained largely intact.

If visitors look closely, a hole in one of the windows in the left apse is visible. That hole serves as a reminder of the frightening chaos and the damaging attacks in 2002.

Renovations and Additions

The church was built by German missionaries, and all the writing on the windows is German. When the copula was repainted, the congregation chose to include Arabic calligraphy, which reads, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will to men.”

The organ was originally manufactured in Berlin around 1890. In 2000, as part of the 2000 Millennium celebration, it was rebuilt thanks to a fundraising campaign, led by one of our partners churches, the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis, MN, USA.