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Christmas Eve in Turkey St Peter’s grotto
by Mavi Zambak

A community of people – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslims, believers and non believers – come together on Christmas Eve to invoke the Light which enlightens all men.

A winding passage in rock on the slope of Mount Stauris . It is blackened by the smoke of candles lit during the festive season, in glaring contrast with the tattered white of the plasterwork, once the background of now barely visible frescoes, which used to cover the entire wall. On the floor are confusing traces of mosaics, indecipherable remains of Byzantine figures.

This is the grotto of St Peter in Antioch , described as the oldest church in the world.

On the night of 24 December, the small Christian community of the city will gather to celebrate Christmas here, in this grotto simply decorated for the occasion: a few carpets, an icon of Mary tenderly embracing her baby, and a candle here and there and some flowers.

Meanwhile, in the dwellings clinging to the mountain slope, many poor families – who have sought unauthorized refuge there – are nestled around a wood stove drinking hot tea and telling each other about their latest misfortunes, each day much like the one before it, drawing to a close. Many people, in the darkness overhanging the city, silently walk towards the mountain.

Turkish television is always present during the celebration: the camera scrutinizes each and every turn, takes in every face to pick up expressions of wonder. But there is nothing earth-shattering, sensational, or extraordinary.

It is not an opulent church, finely decorated or of artistic value. There is no gold, no precious objects, no garlanded statues, no rich crib with statuettes, angels, animals and homes, and no procession with incense.

It is as it used to be once upon a time, a palace carved out of a rock grotto, large and hospitable, ready to welcome everyone: Catholic, Orthodox, Muslims, believers and otherwise, rich and poor, youth, children, and elderly.

And once again, the miracle unfolds: the Word becomes flesh, a piece of bread, around which all invoke Peace together, Peace in our hearts, Peace on heaven and earth, Peace among all men, especially those martyred in war, oppression and other violence, above all in the land where He was born.

A small group of men, women and children of goodwill – and it doesn’t matter any more which religion, social class or nation they come from – who, despite the late hour and the cold, believe in the Light, the true Light, and they are here to seek it, to invoke it, because still today it continues to enlighten all men.