In popular imagination, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” conjures sentimental thoughts of a bucolic, quaint village symbolic of peace on earth and good will toward men.
Palestinian Christians living today in the modern city of Bethlehem, however, face a far different reality.
While on-and-off violence in the West Bank has subsided for now, this year’s Christmas celebration is being muted by arrival of Israel’s “security wall,” a system of barriers being built around Palestinian lands.
Israel says the fence is needed for protection against terrorist attacks. Many Palestinians don’t dispute the fact that there’s a legitimate security concern but oppose its placement, complaining that it encroaches onto Palestinian lands and causes more harm than necessary to economic conditions and human rights.
The past year has been one of the most difficult yet for Palestinians, and their future looks dim, westerner Frank Wright wrote in a recent column posted on BethlehemMedia.net, a Web site dedicated to reporting the “human angle of the infamous Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
The economy is shot, with 60 percent of people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip living below the poverty line, Wright said in the Bethlehem-datelined article. Unemployment estimates range as high as 65 percent. The city’s economy relies heavy on tourism, but fear of violence stemming from Israel’s occupation is keeping the tourists away.
Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palestine, Jordan and Israel, described the mood in this year’s Christmas sermon with the Arabic word khaher, which refers to an overwhelming emotion of powerlessness, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, shame, defeat, pain and sorrow all at the same time.
“As we approach Christmas this year, I now see the khaher in the eyes of the Palestinian people,” he said. “We are all obliged to watch the continuous construction of the Separation Wall and feel helpless and powerless. We know it will create more injustice and hatred and less security.”
The Rev. Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, said in his Christmas letter this year that Christmas for many around the world has become a festival of “cheap peace.”
“Personally, I am bored with all of this talk about peace around Christmas time,” Raheb said. “Christmas has become a season for joyful peace talkers, rather than blessed peacemakers.”
In April 2002, several buildings of Raheb’s church were damaged when Israeli Defense Forces entered Bethlehem with tanks, bulldozers and troops. Soldiers held Raheb at gunpoint for two hours, while they stormed the church compound looking for gunmen, weapons or ammunition. None were found, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the United States wrote a letter to President Bush denouncing the invading and searching of church sanctuaries.
“In our Palestinian context, ‘peace talk’ is often a good recipe for managing the conflict rather than resolving it,” Raheb continued. “As the world continues to talk peace, Israel continues to build the wall, and while Christians continue singing ‘O little town of Bethlehem,’ Israel makes sure that this town stays as little as possible.”
The Alliance of Baptists includes $5,000 for the International Center of Bethlehem, which is associated with Raheb’s church, in its annual mission offering. The arrangement is the result of a study trip to Israel by 20 Alliance members in 2000, which included a rare daylong visit to the West Bank.
Jeanette Holt, associate director of the Washington-based Alliance, said she came back so impressed with the work of Raheb’s church and International Center that she was committed to finding a way to provide ongoing support.
“It is impossible for me to sing that Christmas carol (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”) without almost breaking down,” Holt said in an interview with EthicsDaily.com.
Among the International Center’s programs is Authentic Tourism, a “socially responsible” travel offering a “holistic” alternative for Christians visiting Israel.
More than 2 million people visit the Holy Land each year, according to the International Center’s Web site. While 85 percent of them are Christian pilgrims, less than half visit the West Bank for more than two hours.
“They run where Jesus walked, looking for ancient stones while missing the current realities,” says the Web site.
Among stories that Palestinian Christians say aren’t being told by Israel’s government and the international press is of human rights violations associated with the so-called security wall.
The wall does not follow the “Green Line,” the existing cease-fire line that Palestinians hope will mark the boundaries of their future state. Instead, it encroaches deep into Palestinian lands, prompting annexation of farmlands, the potential cutting off of thousands from their places of work and putting at least 13 Palestinian villages in a “no-man’s” land between the wall and the Green Line, says a report by the World Council of Churches.
Other critics view it as a land grab, with Israel hoping it will be used to establish the eventual boundaries of a promised Palestinian state envisioned in President Bush’s “roadmap for peace.”
Faced with such prospects, Palestinians in large numbers are simply packing up and leaving. Since it is easier for Palestinian Christians to get visas and work permits than for Muslims, and they are also more likely to have relatives living in Europe or the United States, some say Bethlehem’s Christian population is in danger of disappearing.
“Bethlehem used to be an overwhelmingly Christian town,” Holt said. “It has been for 2,000 years.” Now, with Christians pulling out of the occupied territories at rapid rates, she said, the Christian population is down to about 2 percent.
“Can you imagine Bethlehem without Christians?” Yaqub Kasis, a member of Bethlehem’s dwindling Christian community asked a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent. “The Church of the Nativity without Christians?”
“That’s why they are doing this,” he said, referring to the fence being prepared within view of his balcony. “To make us leave.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.