Creating people's geographies
As we enjoy our Christmases, another Christmas passes under occupation in Bethlehem, multifaith community and birthplace of Christ.
Earlier this month the Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarsa, held his traditional Christmas season press conference to tell the world that
the birthplace of Jesus Christ is in its worst economic, political and tourist conditions in those 2,000 years. The dire situation is due to the procedures and practices of the occupation that continues to increase in severity in and around the city.
The so-called security fence on our land has forced large numbers of people to leave their homes and move. The conditions are so deplorable that the practices are clearly intended to vacate the land of its people.
While Christians, Moslems and Jews have coexisted for centuries in Palestine, occupied Bethlehem is being subject to strangulation by an apartheid government.
… Christians and Muslims form a single community in Bethlehem. It is perhaps the most important lesson — after the incarnation itself — that Bethlehem can offer the world. We are a multifaith community in a region that needs more such examples. Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other for centuries, and, if we are given the chance, we will continue to do so. We are not being squeezed out by Islamism, but by economic hardship as a result of annexation of land, and entrapment behind a wall whose existence shames humanity.
A UN report into Christianity in Bethlehem predicts that our community will not survive another two generations. …
Graphic by Latuff
The Apartheid Wall eats up a good deal of Bethlehem, isolating some 7,000 dunams of its territory that includes the entire northern region (15 percent of Bethlehem). The Israelis have annexed it to Jerusalem which they now control. The Israeli wall cuts the ancient Jerusalem-Bethlehem diocese of the Latin (Catholic), Anglican and Armenian Churches into parcels, separating congregations and families from each other. Most importantly for the Christian community, the Wall has thus now severed the single diocese of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Pilgrims cannot go from one to the other, despite the fact that they are only twenty minutes apart.
As Bethlehem Mayor Dr. Victor Batarsa testifies; “This has had a negative impact on everyone and a catastrophic effect on many. Hundreds of farmers have lost their lands and without that income the tourist industry becomes even more important, but that has suffered as well.” A staggering two thirds of the population in Bethlehem now lives below the poverty line and unemployment is higher than 60%.
The Wall, electric fences, settlers only roads and checkpoints create a prison-like environment for the community, and the lifeblood of the Bethlehem economy, tourism, is being sapped. Tourism makes up 65% of the economy and is being increasingly, if not entirely, controlled by Israeli tour companies. PNN reports that the Israelis beg people off from visiting verbally and in tour and guidebooks, telling them it is unsafe to go to Bethlehem, and anywhere else in the West Bank. The Hotel Association in Bethlehem has reported that only 2.5% of rooms were booked in 2005 in contrast with 22% in 2000.
In a recent letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury who recently visited Bethlehem and condemned the Wall (see further links below), Palestinian Bishop Riad Abu El Assal writes:
To us, the gentle coexistence of Christians and Muslims is a source of strength; indeed, we regard ourselves as a beacon to the wider Middle East and, through it, the rest of the world. The crisis facing Christians here is entirely due to the Israeli occupation, which, in recent years, has seen entire communities imprisoned behind the Israeli-built wall.
The Open Bethlehem organisation is organising Bethlehem citizenship in 2007 to help garner international support, with the first Bethlehem passport going to the Pope (would that he was as vocal in speaking up for justice as the wonderful Anglican Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams!). May this exciting and creative initiative fare well in the New Year.
This Christmas, may we also spare a thought for Iraqis existing under occupation and a living nightmare, for Afghanis and for all peoples everywhere deprived of their liberties and fighting for their freedoms.
A Palestinian policeman on a rooftop overlooking the Church of the Nativity (AP)