[SLIDESHOW=41731,41732,41733]BETHLEHEM, Israel (BP) — Music pulses through Manger Square as Muslims and Christians chant in Arabic, counting down to the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. They reach wahad (one), and the lights flash to life. The crowd cheers and whistles as green, gold and red fireworks explode above the tree. It’s Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.
The night is filled with choral performances and speeches. Dec. 24 is a festive occasion in Bethlehem for Christians and Muslims who celebrate a shared cultural heritage.
While most local Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on Jan. 7 as members of the Greek Orthodox Church, local American believers still mark the occasion on Dec. 25.
Christmas gives followers of Jesus in Bethlehem, Northern Africa and the Middle East an occasion to open their homes to local Muslim or Orthodox friends. Hospitality is a huge part of Middle Eastern culture, and believers can easily find openings to talk about Jesus’ birth while sharing cake and coffee.
One Christian couple uses the Christmas story in a game they play each year with English learners. Though most of these students are Muslim, they are often familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth and the traditions of Christmas trees, gifts and Santa. The Christian workers ask students to name symbols they have seen used as decorations and draw them on a piece of paper. The couple then reads the story from the Bible and asks the students to pick out which symbols come from the story and which come from tradition.
Another Christian worker invited five friends who had never celebrated Christmas to her home. Though she has known them for several years, she had found it difficult to move past surface-level conversation. After some small talk and a game, she read them the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Her friends asked several questions about Jesus’ birth, but the discussion soon moved beyond the Nativity story. The friends wanted to know about His miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and even the authorship of the Gospels.
Here in the lands closest to where Jesus walked, many do not know Him. But some are curious about Him.
As conflicts rage throughout the region, the Middle East often seems swallowed by darkness. Yet, hope shines. Those who might otherwise be considered enemies gather each year to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This Christmas, ask God to open the hearts of Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians as workers share Jesus’ story with their friends and neighbors. Ask God to give wisdom to those who invite their non-believing friends into their homes as they seek opportunities to speak about Jesus. Pray that Jesus’ name would be glorified in the land of His birth as believers and non-believers celebrate His coming.
Visit imb.org  to learn how you can help support workers in the Middle East and all over the world.