In the Christian Quarter of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem, the former captain of the Palestinian basketball team, Issa Kassisieh, walks around in a red uniform and a long white beard, performing the role of Santa Claus in a festive manner, spreading joy around him.
Every December, the streets of the Christian Quarter sparkle with green and red lights as Christian pilgrims and others arrive to celebrate Christmas in East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed in 1967. The Israeli municipality of Jerusalem only allows the decoration of the New Gate, one of the seven gates of Jerusalem. Old.
Seven years ago, Issa, who has a great stature and is "the only one approved" to play this role, according to him, turned the ground floor of his old house, built more than 700 years ago, into a store for sweets and wine, and families now lined up to make their children´s hearts rejoice at seeing Santa Claus.
Receiving the season´s first visitors, Issa (38 years) told AFP, "We have many religions here in Jerusalem. Muslims, Christians and Jews come to my house and I open my arms to everyone."
Among the visitors were a group of Israeli tourists and two priests who blessed the opening with prayers in Arabic and ancient Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Kassisieh is ninety meters tall and looks like a palm tree in front of the children, including Marwa, an eight-year-old Palestinian Muslim. "I am not a Christian, but I love Santa Claus... We have a (Christmas) tree at home as well," the little girl told AFP, smiling.
Children of different nationalities line up to sit on Santa Claus´s lap.
American Alison Pargeter, 52, is waiting for her turn, with her children. "It is important for our children to have fun. We also want them to know the real story behind Christmas," she told AFP.
The Old City of Jerusalem includes the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which contains the Holy Sepulcher, that is, the burial place of Jesus according to Christian beliefs, while the birth of Jesus took place in the city of Bethlehem.
The Palestinian Santa explained that his young visitors also have modern interests.
"Every kid asks me for an iPhone," he said, laughing. "I don´t promise anything but I say ´let´s pray and if you´re on my list of good kids, you´ll get it´."
When Issa Kassisieh was a child, his father dressed him up as Santa Claus for him and his two sisters. Fifteen years ago, he found his father´s red velvet suit and decided to wear it to revive the tradition.
However, he was not satisfied with that. He studied at the "Santa Claus" College (the English name for Santa Claus) in the US state of Colorado, and attended the "Global Santa Claus Conference" in Denmark.
Issa also proudly displays a certificate from the famous American "Charles W. Howard Santa Claus College" in Michigan, and says that these certificates he holds and the training he received make him "the only accredited Santa Claus in Jerusalem."
The Palestinian Santa Claus is fully aware of the city´s sensitivities and coexists with its complex identities.
In addition to the city´s importance to Christians, the Old City is home to sites revered by Jews and Muslims. For decades, it has been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And Issa considered from his cellar that "conveying the message of love and peace from Jerusalem is a special matter, as it is the heart of the world."
"When peace comes to Jerusalem, peace will come to the world."
For Maqdisi, the secret to being a good Santa Claus is to be simple and "always give answers to children´s questions."