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Austrian Peace Light tradition continues, despite pandemic

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BERLIN — The year, the Christmas tradition of the Peace Light of Bethlehem continues, despite COVID-19 restrictions and border and church closures.

In mid-November, the Austrian public broadcasting corporation, ORF, announced that the light had been lit from the oil lamp hanging over the 14-point star in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Since 1986, the light has been lit by an Austrian child, but this year, due to travel restrictions, 9-year-old Maria Khoury of Bethlehem lit the lantern.

ORF reported Maria is from a Christian family in Bethlehem and took on this task with great joy: "My family and I are very proud to be part of this Austrian Christmas tradition," she was quoted as saying.

In the past the lantern was then returned to Austria by plane, where the flame was used to light other lamps and candles that families and parishes placed next to their Nativity scenes. With the support of organizations such as the Scouts or the Youth Fire Brigades, this symbol of peace at Christmas was then distributed to people all over the world.

ORF said the Austrian railways, fire brigades, the Red Cross, the Samaritan Federation, Scouts, as well as parishes and private organizations would again support the spreading of the light this year. There was no further information how this would be done.

The Peace Light has become especially popular in Austria's neighboring countries in Eastern and Central Europe, where, for many years under communism, Christians were deprived of openly celebrating their faith.

In the past, the Peace Light was presented to Pope Francis, as well as his predecessors, now-retired Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. Other prominent government leaders also have received the Peace Light.

The "Peace Light of Bethlehem" initiative raises money for children with disabilities and special needs. This year, the Vatican and Austria issued joint stamps to honor the initiative.

On the one stamp of the stamp block, Pope Francis is seen with the peace light, and below him is a white pen drawing of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The other stamp shows baby Jesus wrapped in a red cloth in a depiction inspired by a painting by the Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni. Below that is the slab of the Nativity Grotto, where Jesus is said to have been born. In the background is a drawing of the iconic pilgrimage church Christkindl in Steyr, Austria, while the lower edge of the block is decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy See.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020