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Omar Mansour, centre left, poses with his mother and father, second from left, and Father Manuel Musallam, left, and other clergy of the Holy Family School in Gaza at Mansour’s graduation in 2007.HO/The Canadian Press

What Omar Mansour misses most about Christmas in the Gaza Strip is the music.

Churches, schools and homes played Christmas music starting early December, said the Vancouver resident, and a permanent resident in Canada since 2014. The place would be “dressed like a bride” and twinkle with lights, he said.

“It didn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim,” Mansour said. “Everyone in Gaza celebrates Christmas.”

On Christmas Eve, he said his family would bake bread, make za’atar – a traditional Middle Eastern spice blend that is eaten with the bread, get olives from his tree and other goodies, build a fire in the living room and talk about the highlights of the year.

“It wasn’t very cold but it always rained on Christmas,” he said, reminiscing about the holidays. “My entire extended family would gather in our house and just talk and laugh and share stories.”

It was a chance for his nieces and nephews to stay up late and watch TV without being told off, he said.

The last time he was in Gaza with his family on Christmas was 2013.

On Christmas Day, Mansour said he would go to the Holy Family Church in Gaza City. He was a student at the Holy Family School in Gaza, which is an establishment of the Latin Patriarchate School, and graduated in 2007. The annual visit, he said was a way to catch up with his former teachers.

“The music at the church … there were violins and the piano. It was just, just so beautiful,” he said.

“We don’t have Michael Buble. Michael Buble is like nothing. He sings here and there some stuff. We have songs from the original Bible in Arabic and in Latin. Some really wonderful prayers and songs.”

The church and school, like others in Gaza, have been sheltering people fleeing bombings.

Last week, Pope Francis called for peace, saying “unarmed civilians are being bombed and shot at, and this has even happened inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists but families, children and sick people with disabilities, nuns.’’ He spoke after the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said two Christian women at a church compound in Gaza were killed by Israeli sniper fire.

A British lawmaker, Layla Moran, said several family members were among hundreds sheltering in the compound. “This is a church. It’s a week before Christmas. This is Advent. This is an important time in the Christian family’s religious calendar. And there is a sniper killing women and firing at children,'' she asserted.

In discussions between the Israeli military and representatives of the church community, no one reported a strike on the church or civilians being wounded or killed, the Israeli military said.

It said that a review of its initial investigation had supported that.

As Christmas Eve fell, smoke rose over the besieged territory, while in the West Bank Bethlehem was hushed, its holiday celebrations called off.

The war has devastated large parts of Gaza, killed roughly 20,400 Palestinians and displaced almost all of the territory’s 2.3 million people.

The mounting death toll among Israeli troops – 154 since the ground offensive began – could erode public support for the war, which was sparked when Hamas-led militants stormed communities in southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and taking 240 hostage.

Mansour said he is not sure how most of his teachers are doing, or how many of them are still alive.

“I know the teacher who taught me Islam in school was killed,” he said.

He said he hopes he can visit the site and what remains of his school, and the church sometime soon.

“This time of year, when I think of Christmas what is stuck in my head and my memory is being in the church on Christmas (Day) with people playing violin, and the organ,” he said. “And just prayer. This was every Christmas time.”

– With files from The Associated Press.

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