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Bethlehem Beyond the Christmas Calm

Lela Gilbert

Just a few days before Christmas, as I walked around Bethlehem on a Sunday morning, the lyric “All is calm, all is bright” drifted into my mind. It was a calm, bright day—windy, with a ridge of purple rain clouds gathering on the horizon. There had been tension in the air during my last visit to Bethlehem, soon after the Hamas takeover in Gaza. But now any sense of apprehension seemed to have vanished.

I was in the company of “Stefan,” an Arab Christian, who serves as a visitors’ guide. He was quick to point out, as we passed through the checkpoint, his grievances against the Israeli security fence, the inconvenience of ID checks and the required work permits. As a resident of Jerusalem, he has free passage back and forth, but was still indignant about the checkpoint.

My question was probably a little too direct. “Isn’t the checkpoint here to stop suicide bombers from getting into Jerusalem?”

“Bombs!” he growled. “Do they think we’re stupid? If I wanted to take a bomb in I’d just go out of town another way, where there isn’t a checkpoint.” Then he added, “Look, I’m a Christian and we aren’t bombers. But if we were, we wouldn’t be crazy enough go through a checkpoint!”

“So it’s possible to come and go from Bethlehem without passing through a checkpoint?”

“Of course! There are many ways in and out of Bethlehem. You just have to know where you’re going.”

Stefan was right. The last two suicide bombers that struck Jerusalem came from Bethlehem and had reached their targets through a then-unguarded back road. In fact more than half the terrorists who struck Jerusalem in 2005 came from or through Bethlehem. Reportedly, since its installation the security barrier has decreased by more than a 90% the number of suicide bombings.

Stefan talked a little about the difficulties confronting Bethlehem businesses. Once again he revisited the Israeli security issues—how merchants are suffering because of them. Then he went on to say that Muslims are moving into the city, “more of them all the time,” he told me. “More and more Muslims are coming in,” he repeated, “and more and more Christians are leaving. They’re going out of business and leaving the country. It’s too hard to make a living here.”

My June visit to Bethlehem had fallen on a weekday when Manger Square was completely empty. I remember watching trash blowing across the pavement and a few birds squawking over a crust of bread. Now church bells pealed and there was hardly a parking place to found. Merchants were unshuttering their shops as men in keffiyahs and scarved women strolled up the hill toward the market. Stefan and I, going in the opposite direction, made our way alongside families and clusters of friends. One by one we bent over to enter the Door of Humility leading inside the Church of the Nativity.

Incense filled the warm air inside, and colorful lights and candles illuminated the Greek Orthodox service. I glanced around recalling that this very church had been seized by terrorists in May 2002. In a bitter siege during which Arab gunmen held dozens of Christian nuns, priests, monks and pilgrims hostage for weeks. In disbelief these Christians watched act after act of wanton destruction as the terrorists looted historic icons, confiscated gold and silver sacred vessels, urinated against the walls, and otherwise demolished and desecrated the holy site.

Now, almost five years later, ancient chants echoed, and downstairs, in the Grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, more candles blazed as a small gathering of Italian Catholics prayed. Next door, the Roman Catholic service was just beginning, and there was standing room only as the cross was carried in procession toward the altar.

The Catholic liturgy began and a spirit of reverence fell across the room, interrupted only as a handful of professional photographers scurried around on the periphery of the crowd. While the Gospel was read and the response sung, I reflected on this faithful Catholic congregation. They may be leaving town, I thought, but they haven’t stopped worshiping together.

Until recent years Christians have enjoyed relative prosperity in Bethlehem as well as in other West Bank municipalities. Today they are departing in record numbers while Muslims are moving into their houses and businesses. Do these newcomers imagine they will have better luck in the shadow of the fence? Won’t the security measures handicap their commercial efforts too? A closer look at the facts suggests that the fence and other Israeli security procedures are not the real reason Bethlehem’s Christians are struggling, despairing and fleeing.

In 1948, Bethlehem was a largely Christian community, with Christians comprising an estimated 85 percent of the population. Today, that percentage has shrunk to something closer to 12 per cent. Until the Palestine Authority took over the control of the city in 1994, Bethlehem thrived alongside Jerusalem. The roads in and out of the city were lined with shops and markets, and residents came and went freely. All that began to change during the first intifada, with stone-throwing incidents gradually escalating into shootings, assaults, and torched cars.

Later, during the second intifada, security became a matter of life and death once suicide bombings were introduced. These attacks ultimately led to the construction of the controversial security barrier.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and no friend of Israel, wrote in late 2006, “I have spent the last two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem…there are some signs of disturbing anti-Christian feeling among parts of the Muslim population, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence. But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the ‘security fence’ which almost chokes the shrinking town…” He went on to speak of dramatic poverty, soaring unemployment and practical hardships.

In actual fact, the Archbishop’s carefully crafted phrase, “some signs of disturbing anti-Christian feeling” falls woefully short of telling whole story.

In an 2005 interview with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JPCA), Steven Khoury, of Bethlehem’s First Baptist Church, reported that the church had been attacked by Muslims from a nearby refugee camp “…with Molotov cocktails 14 times. Our church vans have been burned. The church was broken into and defaced with graffiti five times.” Others have reported the shooting of the Baptist Church’s pastor.

In 2006, the UK’s Daily Mail reported on the struggle of two Christians from the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala who were facing continuous persecution for their faith. George Rabie, a cab driver, said that he had been beaten by a gang of Muslims visiting from nearby Hebron, angered by the crucifix hanging on his windshield, and that he experiences persecution “every day.” Jeriez Moussa Amaro told the Daily Mail that his two sisters Rada, 24, and Dunya, 28, had been shot dead by Muslim gunmen. “Their crime was to be young, attractive Christian women who wore Western clothes and no veil. . .” A terrorist organization, al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for Amaro’s sisters’ murder.

Overt violence isn’t the only difficulty faced by Christians in areas under the Palestinian Authority. In recent weeks, Ramallah pastor Isa Bajalia, an American Christian of Arab descent, stated publicly that he has been threatened by a Palestinian Authority official, who demanded he pay $30,000 in protection money to ensure his safety. On November 11, Fox News reported, “Pastor Isa Bajalia is legally blind, yet he was also told by the official he would be crippled for life. The trouble started after church members held a prayer session for several Palestinians. Bajalia says he has been under surveillance and receiving threats.” Isa Bajalia has since fled Ramallah.

Among the compiled JCPA interviews of West Bank Christians are reports of extortion by Arab Muslims, demands for protection money, seized properties, vandalized homes and shops, widespread rape of Christian girls, honor killings, and murders of converts to Christianity from Islam.

In July 2007, Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, a Palestinian Christian bookstore owner who had received repeated threats was found stabbed to death in a street in Gaza City. “I expect our Christian neighbors to understand the new Hamas rule means real changes,” commented Sheikh Abu Sakir, leader of Jihadia Salfiya, an Islamic outreach movement. “They must be ready for Islamic rule if they want to live in peace in Gaza.”

In a recent briefing, Justus Reid Weiner, Resident Scholar of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reported, “The growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism within the Palestinian national movement poses problems for Christians, who fear they will be deemed opponents of Islam and thereby risk becoming targets for Muslim extremists. This is exacerbated by the fact that Hamas holds substantial power and seeks to impose its radical Islamist identity on the entire population within the P.A.-controlled territories.”

Weiner later told me, “Now that donors have pledged $7.4 billion to the PA, perhaps it is time that strings were attached to this enormous influx of money. Those strings should include, among other things, a demand for provision and protection for the Christian minority in the Palestinian Territories.”

In June, my son took a photograph of two little Bethlehem boys proudly waving a Hamas flag at us as we passed them in the street. Now Palestinian flags flutter above the marketplace while PA policemen keep a close eye on the city square. In a café, a tiny Christmas tree’s ornaments gleam red and green as a Muslim family shares a late morning meal of falafel and hummus. Stefan and I walk to the car, quickly pass through the checkpoint, and are soon driving along bustling Emek Refaim. As Jerusalem’s shoppers browse and chat and drink coffee, a relentless population exchange continues just 10 minutes down the road. Amidst this calm, bright Christmas season, Bethlehem Christians are quietly packing and moving away.

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