Bethlehem beyond the Christmas calm
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 worshipping 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.