A nativity installation depicting Mary, Joseph and Jesus separated in cages has caused a stir in a southern California city, a few hundred kilometers from the US border with Mexico.

The installation shows Joseph and Mary, in separate cages, facing a cradled baby Jesus in a cage; Joseph’s arms outstretched towards him. It was posted to Facebook by the Rev Karen Ristine of the Claremont United Methodist church, and has been shared more than 20,000 times.

“In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family,” Ristine wrote on Facebook. She cites Matthew 25:35, in which Jesus thanks those who fed him when he was a hungry refugee fleeing Bethlehem.

“What if this family sought refuge in our country today? 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,” said Ristine in the Facebook post.

The nativity has drawn mixed reactions from locals in Claremont. “Karen, I am Methodist and your post is a clap in the face to me,” said one churchgoer on Ristine’s Facebook page, adding: “I can not put it any clearer, you are an ass.”

“What about the ILLEGALS coming into this country and killing someone? The parents and that child are separated forever in this life … Horrible display,” said another.

Others commended it. “Profound statement. Thank you for standing up for those who have no voice. This is not ‘using’ the nativity scene. This is a perfect artistic rendition of Jesus’ teachings. I’m truly grateful,” read one comment.

It is not the first time the Claremont United Methodist church has made the news. In March, after the worldwide United Methodist church voted to maintain its opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy, the Claremont church took out an ad in a local paper condemning the decision. “We stand in opposition to every denomination that excludes , marginalizes or devalues any group based on sexuality, race, culture, shape ability or language,” the advert said.

The church has also previously put out a list of social principles in the Bible that are relevant to the current migration crisis.

Today, a North Dakota county will vote on to decide whether to stop accepting refugees, the first local government vote since Donald Trump issued an executive order making it possible.

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