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The Slow Death of Christian Bethlehem: what the Pope can do

Added: two videos

Pope Benedict XVI meeting Palestinians at the maternity hospital run by the Catholic charity Caritas in Bethlehem. Photograph: Peter Dammann/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI meeting Palestinians at the maternity hospital run by the Catholic charity Caritas in Bethlehem. Photograph: Peter Dammann/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve been very critical of Pope Benedict for not including Gaza on his visit to Palestine. The circumstances surrounding his decision to visit are that he was invited by Shimon Peres, as Jonathan Cook notes in this illuminating piece, from which I will draw in a quick whip around a few articles. The Pope has also made some supporting statements on behalf of Palestine, which are welcomed. The Pontiff has visited Bethlehem and has received a warm welcome from Christian and Muslim Palestinians. In the wake of his statements and visit to the West Bank, Austen Ivereigh does well to highlight the urgent plight of Palestinian Christians and all Palestinian Arabs under israeli occupation:

A Zogby poll some years ago exposed a disturbing ignorance among Americans about the town of Christ’s birth. Most think it is a mixed Jewish-Muslim town in Israel, rather than a mixed Christian-Muslim town corralled behind the Israeli security wall in the Palestinian-controlled territory of the West Bank.

It may be this basic geographic ignorance that explains why the Christian world seems so indifferent to the slow death of Christian Bethlehem. If the pope does nothing else in his visit there, he must at least tell the world the truth about why Christians are leaving.

It is not because of Islamic fundamentalism. Muslims and Christians have co-existed as peaceful neighbours for most of its history. Bethlehem has gone from being 90 to 30% Christian because the town has lost most of its land to Israeli settlements – land once owned by the town’s Christian families.

Since 2004, when an international court condemned them, Israel has built 30,000 Jewish-only housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Two-thirds of the governorate of Bethlehem, which includes the adjoining hill suburbs of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, has been declared a military zone off-limits to Palestinians. Beit Jala has lost half its land, central Bethlehem a quarter and Beit Sahour a third. Bethlehem has become a ghetto, severed from lands to the north and west by the wall, and to the south and east by Jewish settler-only roads.

The economy of Bethlehem has always been linked to Jerusalem, only 20 miles away. But the 30-foot high grey concrete wall Israel has built far into metropolitan Bethlehem has put paid to that. Bethlehemites can no longer travel to Jerusalem for work and trade. Deprived of land, they are now almost entirely dependent on the money spent by pilgrims. But the pilgrims, deterred by the wall, seldom stay in Bethlehem, opting for visits of a few hours to the Basilica of the Nativity and the Shepherds’ Fields, spending little and learning less. Fleeing unemployment of over 50%, and deprived of the basic freedoms to develop, some 3,000 Christians have emigrated these past years to the US and Chile.

The wall is a sickening sight, and it is visible from almost everywhere in Bethlehem, bristling with watchtowers, turning the place where God quietly entered the world into an open prison. The wall was memorably described by the Archbishop of Canterbury on his 2006 visit as “symbolising everything that is wrong in the human heart”. But it’s more than a symbol. It’s a border. Its justification – as with almost everything Israel does – is security. But its true purpose is revealed by the path it follows, snaking around the Israeli settlements and the security zone, ensuring that they end up on the Israeli side, and hemming Bethlehem in. The wonder is not that the Christians are leaving, but that so many, despite the odds, choose to stay.

They stay because they are proud of their town, and proud to be descended from the fourth-century Arabs who showed the Empress Helena the exact spot where the Christ-child came into the world, covered over by a pagan temple. It was here that the world’s oldest continuous church, the Basilica of the Nativity, was built, over the caves where Mary gave birth, and where Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with his young family to Egypt.

It does not matter that more Muslims live in Bethlehem these days than Christians. What matters is that the one of the world’s oldest Christian populations survives there, with its distinctive culture, its unique tradition, and its constant witness.

A second piece from the Guardian highlights the Pontiff’s statements calling for a “sovereign Palestinian homeland” and wanting to see the Israeli blockade of Gaza lifted. The Pontiff visited refugee camps, said mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and offered his “solidarity” to the Palestinians of Gaza. Excerpted:

Later, he was driven in to the UN school in the Aida refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem, home to refugees who in 1948 were forced out or fled their homes in what is now Israel.

The pope acknowledged their “precarious and difficult conditions”. Today 5,000 live on just 500 sq metres of desperately crowded land. Their homes are in the shadow of Israel’s vast concrete and steel barrier, which stretches more than 400 miles across the West Bank. It was not there when his predecessor, John Paul II, visited nine years ago – its construction a sign of just how deeply the political climate has worsened since then.

“It is tragic to see walls still being erected,” Benedict said.

Wherever he went, the pope was welcomed with cheers and praise. A few thousand gathered early for the Manger Square mass, a sea of white and yellow caps, chanting “viva papa, viva Palestina” as they waited for him to appear. But even the pope himself acknowledged the thinly disguised frustration and bitterness that so many spoke of.

Yusuf Ibrahim, 67, left his farmland in a Christian village near Jenin before dawn dressed in a smart suit to make it to Bethlehem in time. It took him five hours. Like others, he talked of the decline of the Palestinian Christian community, which he said had little to do with pressure from Muslims and a lot to do with Israel’s occupation. “The situation is bad. We are besieged by the wall,” he said. As a West Bank resident he can only travel to Jerusalem with a special permit from the Israeli military, which he only usually receives on Christian holidays, if at all. “The Israelis are stubborn,” he said. “They will not change unless the Americans and the Europeans put real pressure on them.”

Joseph Giacaman, 49, spoke of the struggling Bethlehem economy and the troubles of running his Christian souvenir shop on Manger Square. Most of his family have moved abroad. “People are closed up. It’s very hard to go out,” he said. “They need to try to open the roads, to give permission for people to work, to come and go. We hope sometime for a peace agreement, but it’s not that easy.”

It was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who expressed their anger most pointedly when he welcomed the pope to Bethlehem with a plea for help. “Our people are suffering – suffering from injustice, from war, from occupation, from lack of trust and lack of hope for a better future,” he told the pontiff.

The Christian community in Palestine was in decline, he said. “As long as we don’t have peace and tranquillity I am afraid this will continue. With the continuation of political instability, separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem and the rest of the world, we cannot find peace.”

Palestinians laid on shows of dancing, singing and poetry readings and delivered the pope gifts, including a scarf woven in Bethlehem which was placed on his shoulders and which carried images of the star of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, the Dome of the Rock and a set of keys, the symbol of the refugees who hope one day to return to their homes. Another gave him a slice of Tiberias stone shaped in a map of historic Palestine.

There was a strong round of applause from the crowd at Aida when the pope mentioned the people of Gaza. Home to 1.5 million Palestinians, Gaza has a small but dwindling Christian community. Around 250 of them had applied to the Israeli military for permits to attend the masses on the pope’s tours but barely half received them. At his mass in Bethlehem, Benedict singled out the people of Gaza, offering his “sorrow for the hardship and suffering you have had to endure” and highlighting the “immense work of rebuilding that lies ahead”. He also said he was praying “that the embargo will soon be lifted”.

Benedict acknowledged the need for a “just and lasting solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians but grasped, too, the reality: “Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state remain unfulfilled,” he said. “Instead you find yourselves trapped … in a spiral of violence, of attack and counterattack, retaliation and continued destruction.”

Sherine Tadros reports on the Christian community’s decline in the Holy Land in this recent short clip for Al Jazeera (2:46):

Al Jazeera’s Nour Odeh reports on the pope’s visit to the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.

Pope visits Palestinian refugee camp – 14 May 09

In a more critical view, Mark Glenn describes the Pope’s visit as “(n)othing more than a public relations opportunity for the Jewish state in the wake of her massacre in Gaza that has cast Israel in her true light as a violence-addicted nation of psychopaths”:

Pope Benedict Arnold VXI … made sure to elucidate the fact that the Church stands firmly in Israel’s camp and will not use an ounce of her formidable voice in speak out against the injustices that have and continue to fall upon the real Semites in the region, meaning the innocent men, women and children in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq or elsewhere.

In the meantime, he assiduously avoided visiting Gaza or talking about the recent purposeful carnage taking place there by Israel. No mention of the women and children deliberately incinerated with Phosphorus bombs or the gunning down of hands-held-high families as they exited their homes upon orders of the IDF.

Instead, the man who commands the attention and respect of over a billion Catholics worldwide spoke about “peace” in the holy land in the same way some single-digit IQ beauty contest candidate talks about how she will wipe out world hunger if she wins.

Jonathan Cook contextualises the Pope’s unwillingness to speak out more than he has:

In private at least, some Palestinian Christian leaders admit that there are pressures on the Pope other than his own personal history that may make him wary of antagonising Israel.

Most importantly, the Vatican desperately needs exemption from Israeli taxes levied on the Church’s extensive land holdings. Unpaid property taxes are reported to amount to US$70 million (Dh257m).

The Holy See also wants a reprieve from Israeli policies that deny visas to many church officials and block clerics’ movement in the occupied territories.

As the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, recently complained: “At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn’t help.”

And finally, the Vatican has been seeking Israel’s agreement for more than a decade to return to its control major sites of pilgrimage, including Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

As Austen Ivereigh notes, the Pope could and should do more in his capacity:

But there is another reason why the pope needs to tell the truth of what is happening to Bethlehem: US public opinion is the one thing the Israeli state has to pay attention to. If the world’s Christians – and especially American Christians – realise that Bethlehem is being strangled by Israeli expansionism, they will realise that the fate of the Christian people of the town of Christ’s birth is inextricably tied to the fate of the people of the West Bank generally.

To plead for peace is not enough. The guns may be silent, but that will not stop the Christians from leaving a dying, imprisoned town. Pope Benedict needs to wake public opinion to what is happening, and why. Christian Bethlehem must be saved –if not by the Vicar of Christ, who?

See all posts related to Bethlehem.

See the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism


Open Bethlehem’s ad for US television:

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This entry was posted on 14 May, 2009 by in Christianity, Israel, Occupation, Palestine, Video and tagged , .

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