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Jesus, Mary and Joseph as detained refugees in California nativity

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Claremont (United States) (AFP)

Baby Jesus is lying in a manger inside a cage, wrapped in an emergency foil blanket and separated from Mary and Joseph, who are each trapped in cells of their own.

This is the startling nativity scene created by a Protestant church in California to draw attention to the plight of migrants.

"We put them in different cages, as a symbol representing our community, and all immigrants, who are being held in detention centers and need our help," Genaro Cordoba, co-creator of the installation and spokesman for Claremont United Methodist Church, told AFP.

"Jesus, Joseph, Mary represent all our immigrants, all the refugees, not just in the United States but all over the world," he said, switching from Spanish to English.

"We have seen how they suffer, and people don't want them, and (in) our country the same thing," Cordoba added.

Karen Clark Ristine, senior minister at the church about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, explained in a Facebook message accompanying the images that the Holy Family were "the most well-known refugee family in the world."

"Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee with their young son from Nazareth to Egypt to escape King Herod, a tyrant," she wrote.

"They feared persecution and death. What if this family sought refuge in our country today?"

The grim Nativity scene appears to address that question.

Each cell is lined with barbed wire, and both Mary and Joseph are pictured facing the infant, their arms outstretched in hope and desperation.

"Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus no older than two taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a Border Patrol detention center as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years," wrote Ristine.

A Trump administration "zero tolerance" policy launched in 2018 saw thousands of children separated from their parents at the border, a tactic apparently meant to frighten the families, before the government backed down.

Migrants including children were held in caged enclosures.

"Jesus grew up to teach us kindness and mercy and a radical welcome of all people," said Ristine.

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