City of Bethlehem losing its

Christian base


Special to the Courier & Press
Friday, December 25, 2009


The pastoral Christmas narrative recorded in the Gospel of Luke serves as one of the cornerstones of a body of religious teachings that have left an indelible mark on the civilized world for the past 2,000 years.

It reminds us of a young Jewish carpenter and his wife, residents of Nazareth in the Northern hill country of Galilee, embarking upon a three-day journey to Bethlehem, to be enrolled in a regional census for the purpose of taxation.

Upon arriving in Bethlehem, there was no room in the inn and the couple was forced to stay in a nearby stable due to the large number of visitors to the historic "City of David." It was there the Christ child was born, a mere six miles from the ancient Judean capital of Jerusalem.

                                                      Anything but peaceful

Across the span of time, many have come to consider this the birth of their eternal Savior. However, recent events in Bethlehem the historic "House of Bread" in its Hebrew translation have been anything but peaceful.

Today, when one visits this once joyous ancient city, as a group of us from The Cathedral church in Evansville did in September, one is greeted by the ominous presence of a 27-foot high concrete wall flanked by barbed wire, trenches and the occasional lookout tower erected several years ago by the Israeli government.

The wall's construction was provoked by violence which erupted during the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 through 2002 during which Bethlehem became a combat zone in Operation Defensive Shield, a major military offensive conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Muslim women and children walk along a street in a residential area near the separation

wall built by Israeli government on disputed Palestinian territory in Bethlehem

During the operation, IDF troops stormed the ancient Church of the Nativity, which was first built during the Sixth Century A.D. by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It was alleged that some 200 Palestinian militants sought refuge in the church in reaction to the IDF's advance upon the city.The siege lasted for 39 days and nine militants were killed, along with the innocent bell ringer of the church.

Several months later, the Israeli government began construction of a system of walls and barbed wire barriers separated by checkpoints and block houses popularly known as the "Jerusalem envelope."

The structures were created in an effort to prohibit violence and terrorist attacks from encroaching Palestinians and Islamic extremists dedicated to wreaking havoc on the city streets of Jerusalem.

Some of this violence and unrest has even occurred in various areas of the Old City, including the holy shrines of the religious traditions represented in this area the Al Aska mosque, the Christian Church of Holy Sepulcher and even the passage ways leading up to the Western Wall.

                                                      Christians dwindle

Perhaps the saddest portion of the lingering collateral damage extending from the construction of the wall around Bethlehem is the plight of the city's Arab-Christian population which claims ancestry from residents of the Arabian Peninsula.

At the time of the rebirth of the state of Israel in 1948, some 75 percent of the 25,000 residents of Bethlehem were Christians. By 1995 when control of the city was turned over to the Palestinian Authority, the figure had declined to some 23 percent.

Since then, exacerbated by deplorable economic conditions and severe travel restrictions placed upon Jews and Arabs residing on both sides of the wall, the struggling Christian population in Bethlehem has shrunk to a mere 15 per cent.

While the strict security regime put in place for the past several years by the Israelis has reduced the number of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the wall has had a devastating effect upon the city's tourism. This year, as Jerusalem may welcome over 3 million tourists to its hotels and restaurants, Bethlehem will be lucky to realize less than half that.

With the growing Muslim majority and Palestinian rule, there have been numerous reports of violence, meted out on minority Christians, the gangland-style taking of land and buildings, kidnappings and other outrages which frequently go unreported by Western media outlets.

                                                            Room at the inn

Unlike the times in the Biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, in recent years Bethlehem's hotels have been virtually empty of guests at Christmas time.

In addition, the lack of employment opportunities has exacerbated the out-migration of Arab-Christians away from Bethlehem to the United Kingdom, the United States and Arab states in the region, notably Jordan.

Some observers have even suggested that within the next 15 years, there may be no Christians left in the modest yet beautiful hillside hamlet.

However, this year, all the news from Bethlehem is not totally bad. The Netanyahu government in Jerusalem has in the past year lifted some of the severe travel restrictions imposed upon cities in the occupied territories. This has resulted in an increase in tourist activity in Bethlehem.

According to Edward Tabash, the Arab-Christian proprietor of the Bethlehem Souvenir Center near Rachel's Tomb which our group visited while we were there, although there was a natural drop-off in business in early December, the number of visitors to his shop in the months of October and November had increased substantially from years past.

"We are expecting to have many more tourists this Christmas season than in recent years," said Tabash, "the lifting of the travel restrictions seems to have been working."

While this small glimmer of hope is expressed by our faithful friend so far away, the fact remains the overwhelming majority of Christians in this country know little of the plight of the Arab-Christians residing in the birthplace of their faith. They feel beleaguered that the world does not understand their situation.

                                                            'A bit cowardly'

In 2006, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, who runs the International Centre of Bethlehem, told the BBC "I think personally that it is a shame that the international Christian community is silent towards what is happening to Bethlehem today ... the international Christian community is a bit cowardly when it comes to Israel. These are harsh words but I think some people have to hear it." said Raheb.

So this year, amid the traditional exchanging of gifts, family gatherings, religious services, enormous meals and all the festive holiday decorations we see each year, perhaps we should take a few minutes to acknowledge the real reason for this sacred holiday. Consider the plight of Christians in Bethlehem who struggle on a daily basis to survive.

Likewise, we should contemplate the blessings of freedom we enjoy as Americans and what we might be able to do to address those less fortunate

David Coker of Evansville is a freelance writer