An Unusual Christmas Carol

Restoration work at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was meant to start in 2009 but only began in 2014. MAHER ABU KHATER

The Israeli occupation is leading to the exodus of Palestinian Christians from their most sacred site

By Maher Abukhater

Christmas in Bethlehem is unlike anywhere else in the world “This is the most important place for Christianity. It is the cradle of Christianity,” Ziad Bandak, who was assigned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to restore the Church of Nativity, told Newsweek Middle East.

Indeed, Christmas in Bethlehem has a special significance. Whilst revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, for years however, the Palestinian city has been unable to truly celebrate the festive season.

“Where is peace in the city of peace?” asked Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, as she prepared to light the Christmas tree in Manger Square, near the reported birth site of Jesus. “Bethlehem has not had peace for many years,” she told Newsweek Middle East. “It is besieged by the wall, the checkpoints and the settlements. This will not kill our spirit to celebrate Christmas and to light the tree of hope and peace,” she said, moments before illuminating the 15-meter high Christmas tree decorated with red, green, white and black, the colors of the Palestinian flag, early in December.

Israel occupied Bethlehem, along with the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, during the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967. Today, after almost half a century of occupation, a barrier surrounds the biblical city. Part of the perimeter is an 8-meter high concrete wall, and part is made up of barbed wire, checkpoints and metal gates. Nineteen Jewish settlements built on land seized from the Palestinians also hem the city in.

Bethlehem is suffering. Cut off from Jerusalem -its main trade partner- when the barrier was built in 2003, the closure of the vibrant Jerusalem-Bethlehem road not only restricted the movement of the city’s 35,000 Muslim and Christian residents, but also that of thousands of others in nearby towns and villages. Since then, the city has been under siege.

Tourism based on Christian pilgrimage to this sacred city, the main income-generating business in Bethlehem, has suffered the most. Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maa’yaah said the number of tourists visiting the city dropped from 2.5 million in 2014 to 1.6 million in 2015. Hotel cancellations also reached over 10 percent this month due to the recent unrest in Palestinian areas and an Israeli clampdown.

“Many tourists have cancelled because of the unrest,” she said. “Many are afraid to come because when they come to Bethlehem they see the separation wall, the checkpoints and soldiers,” she said, adding that it frightens tourists and keeps them away. When Pope Francis visited Bethlehem last year, he stopped to pray at a section of the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a move seen by many to denote the Vatican’s strong objection to the wall siege of Bethlehem.

An imposing Israeli army-controlled steel gate at the wall blocks the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem artery, opening only a few times a year to allow the annual Christmas Eve processions of various Christian patriarchs to pass through. They make the journey from their Jerusalem headquarters to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. Thousands of faithfuls, including scouts and officials, greet the patriarchs when they arrive at Manger Square by midday, before Christmas Eve mass is held inside the Church of Nativity.

Christmas is celebrated three times at the Nativity: December 25 for the Catholic Church, January 7 for Orthodox churches and January 19 for the Armenian Church. There are 13 Christian denominations in the Holy Land, but the two foremost groups are the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. The rest include Armenians, Copts and Assyrians, in addition to small groups mainly of the Catholic Church.

Some 300 years after the Virgin Mary was said to have given birth to Jesus, in a cave or a grotto, in Bethlehem, Queen Helena commissioned a church to be built over the site. The octagonal Basilica of St. Helena, as it became to be known, was completed in 339 A.D. It was built in a way that allowed a clear view of the cave. Part of the church was later destroyed during a local revolt, only to be rebuilt 200 years later by Emperor Justinian on the ruins of the destroyed basilica. Mosaic remnants of the Basilica of St. Helena can still be seen today below the floor in the middle of the present day Church of Nativity.

The birthplace grotto is located at the western end of the Nativity. Two rows of marble steps lead to an underground platform where at one end a silver star inside a cave indicates the spot where Jesus was reportedly born. Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world visit this spot each year, and the more devout ones usually prostrate and kiss the star to receive its blessings.

Since its construction by Emperor Justinian, the Church of Nativity was looted, burnt, damaged by an earthquake, neglected and most recently came under Israeli military siege. It underwent several renovations over the years. The latest is currently underway and is expected to be completed by next year’s Christmas.

“The church and this country have had many troubled times since early history,” said Father Issa Thaljieh, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church, one of three Christian denominations responsible for the Nativity Church. The Armenian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Custody of the Holy Land share the role as the other two custodians. The grotto, however, is under the purview of the Greek Orthodox Church.

“Palestine has seen political turmoil throughout its history, and we live today [through] some of this turmoil which has denied this country and its people the chance to have real joy, the joy brought by Christ, not even in this city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of our lord Jesus Christ. The wall surrounding it and the occupation [has] made life very difficult for us,” he said.

Father Thaljieh was witness to the Israeli army siege of the Church of Nativity in 2002, when on April 2 more than 200 Palestinian gunmen and civilians took refuge in the church to escape an Israeli military invasion of Bethlehem. A number of priests were also caught up in the melee.

“It was a difficult time for all of us, but mainly for the priests and those who took refuge inside the church,” said Thaljieh. “The Israeli army besieged the church from all sides, had soldiers and snipers on the roofs and did not allow anyone to enter it or leave it. The army did not care for the sanctity of this important Christian holy place and treated it just like any other place. The occupation does not distinguish between a holy place and any other place, it only cares for what it wants,” he said.

The siege lasted for almost 40 days. Food and water ran out and no one was allowed in, except once about a month into the siege. Whenever anyone attempted to get to the yard to fetch for something to eat from the land or the trees, the soldiers would shoot him. A priest was killed as well as several Palestinians after being shot by snipers. The priests who were caught inside refused army calls to leave the church and preferred to stay with the others, apparently knowing that their presence would prevent an Israeli army onslaught.

Palestinian Authority and church officials negotiated a deal with the Israeli army to end the siege. Under the agreement, reached on May 10, 2002, 26 of the armed Palestinians were banished to Gaza and 13 more were flown to various European countries. While the exile was supposed to last for only one year, Israel has yet to allow the return of those Palestinians to their homes in Bethlehem.

The church, which in 2012 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was damaged during the siege and required serious renovation. Rainwater leaked from the roof and the wood furnishings were decaying. The ancient mosaic paintings on the walls were also damaged and required restoration. The PA stepped in to renovate the church setting up the Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of Nativity in 2009. The actual restoration work, however, did not begin until September 2014.

The PA funded the initial sum to kick-start the restoration project and the Palestinian private sector also donated. Benefactors were asked to contribute to the restoration fund estimated at $15 million, said Bandak, who heads of the presidential committee overseeing the project. The first phase of the work focused on redoing the roof and exterior walls and windows, which was completed a year later. Officials expect the site to be fully restored by the end of 2016. “This is an international monument that should be preserved,” said Bandak.

Wooden braces covered the marble columns holding the church to protect them, as work on the interior ceiling and walls continued. The mosaics adorning the walls were also covered by cloths to prevent damage.

The Israeli military measures against Bethlehem—and in all Palestinian cities, towns and villages for the past 48 years- have hurt the city’s development and economic growth. “The economy in Bethlehem is suffering and will continue to suffer as long as there is occupation,” said Samir Hazboun, head of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Bethlehem together with its two adjacent Christian towns Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, and several other villages would bring the total population of the entire governorate of Bethlehem to 220,000. The majority of these people depend on work and business in the Old City, which was hard hit by the Israeli measures.

Hazboun said unemployment in Bethlehem reached over 27 percent this year. Economic activity dropped between 30 and 35 percent in the last two months alone because of Israeli restrictions on movement, he said.

The dismal economic activity in Bethlehem, as elsewhere in the West Bank, and the unstable political situation have left their toll on the country’s Christian population, who are normally vibrant and active members of society.

Currently, only 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, is Christian. In 1945, Palestine had 145,000 Christian residents, said sociologist Bernard Sabella, who has done extensive research on the Christian community in Palestine. Based on growth rate data, this figure would have reached 500,000 today. However, more than 60 years later, the number of Christians in Palestine and Israel remained almost the same with only 50,000 living in Palestinian areas, mainly in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and a few villages in the West Bank, and over 100,000 in Israel. Bethlehem, according to Sabella, has no more than 8,000 Christians left. The rest are Muslim. Nearby Beit Jala and Beit Sahour share similar numbers. Furthermore, Armenians, who occupy a quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and who once numbered 5000, are today a mere 600 people and their number is gradually dwindling.

Christian and Muslim scholars and researchers, whom Newsweek Middle East spoke with, agree that—contrary to Israeli claims— mass immigration of Christians is not caused by political and social persecution by the predominantly Muslim society. The real reason for immigration is the political instability and severe economic conditions as a direct result of the Israeli occupation.

“The claim that Christians in Palestine are persecuted is a fallacy,” said Sabella, himself a Christian. “The fact is that Palestine is a model for Christian-Muslim coexistence and we hope that other countries would learn from us,” he said. Ziad Hamouri, head of the Jerusalem Center for Economic and Social Rights concurs. “There is no persecution of Christians in Palestine,” he said. “On the contrary, there is coexistence between the Muslims and Christians in Palestine not found anywhere else and many Christians actually hold senior and important positions in the Palestinian Authority and run many successful businesses,” added Hamouri. Many Christians were and still are leading figures in the Palestinian national struggle for liberation.

If there is any conflict between a Muslim and a Christian, it is normal in any society just as there would be conflict between a Muslim and a Muslim or a Christian and a Christian, he said. Hamouri and Sabella both said the issue of immigration affects all sectors of the Palestinian society, whether they were Muslims or Christians.

Three factors affect immigration, they said. The economic factor is the main one, political instability and the security situation come next. People not seeing a future for themselves in their homeland comes third. “Israeli policies against Palestinians in general had made life very difficult here and forced many who were able to find an opportunity to immigrate … in search of a better future for them and their children elsewhere,” said Hamouri.

But because Christians are a minority, and because their chances of getting citizenship in the West—the United States, Canada, Europe, or Australia—are high, the decline in their numbers is more noticeable.

“Year after year we see that the number of Christians is going down, particularly in Bethlehem,” said Father Thaljieh.

“Young people who graduate do not find jobs, and therefore they look for work abroad even though we urge them not to leave and to stay in this land, because this land is the Holy Land and it is the cradle of Christianity and they should stay,” he said.

In their Christmas Eve sermons at Saint Catherine Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 2008, Fouad Twal and his predecessor Michel Sabbah have regularly urged Christians not to leave the Holy Land, warning that with their departure, this country will be left empty of Christians.

In December 2009, a group of leading Palestinian Christians, including senior clergymen, issued a statement that has become known as Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth. It was a cry to the world to put an end to the suffering of Palestinians and halt the exodus of Christians.

“We, a group of Christian Palestinians, after prayer, reflection and an exchange of opinion, cry out from within the suffering in our country, under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land,” said the statement. It condemned Israeli policies and practices in the occupied territories, which it said, has multiplied the suffering of the Palestinian people, both Christians and Muslims.

“The separation wall erected on Palestinian territory, a large part of which has been confiscated for this purpose, has turned our towns and villages into prisons, separating them from one another, making them dispersed and divided cantons,” the statement read.


A Family Unable to Celebrate Christmas

While many Christian families in Palestine enjoy a muted Christmas, the story of one Bethlehem family stands out. In 1995, the Anastas family, a well-known Christian family, built a three-story building on a plot of land to serve as their residence and business.

The family owned property on the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. Like most businesses in Bethlehem, which depend on tourism as a source of income, the family used the ground level to set up four shops—two for an olive wooden crafts factory and two as souvenir shops to sell wood made in that factory and other Christmas ornaments. It used the second floor as the family residence and turned the last story into a guest-house to lease to visitors and pilgrims coming to Bethlehem.

The family, like many Palestinians, had high hopes that the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo Accords were going to end the Israeli occupation by 1999. Situated on a very busy and vibrant road, initially, the business was booming. Tourism was thriving in Bethlehem, but things quickly deteriorated. When the peace process collapsed in 2000, trouble erupted throughout Palestinian cities. Bethlehem had its share of problems, including the Israeli re-occupation of the city and later the construction of the separation wall known as the Israeli West Bank barrier.

The neighborhood where the Anastas family lived had become a Palestinian-Israeli battle-ground. Not far from their building is the Palestinian Aida refugee camp located on one side and on the other was Rachel’s Tomb, which was taken over by Israel in 1967 and turned into a Jewish worship site after it had been used by Muslims as a mosque.

After the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, at the end of 2000, Israeli army tanks and soldiers were deployed outside and around the Anastas home. The exchange of gunfire between armed Palestinians and the soldiers was a regular occurrence.

At one point, the Israeli army occupied the family’s building and turned it into a military outpost to overlook the nearby refugee camp, said one member of the Anastas family, who preferred not to be named. The family, meanwhile, was forced to stay in one small section of the building and was hardly able to move or do anything for 40 days, whilst the army stayed on. The family preferred to endure the hardships and the brutality of the army and not desert their house. If they had left, their home and business would have been ransacked, said the family member.

Ironically, the family’s first relief came only after Israel built its concrete wall in their front yard to separate that section of Bethlehem from Rachel’s Tomb and Jerusalem, thus completely closing off the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road.

After the construction of the wall, with military watchtowers that can see even inside the Anastas residence, the Israeli tanks pulled out of that area and the family got its building back. But the Anastas found themselves squeezed on three sides by the wall and almost completely isolated from the rest of Bethlehem.

The once thriving business of that entire neighborhood was crushed. The Anastas family was forced to close two of their four shops and only reopen the other two if they see tourists in the area, which is a rare occurrence unless they are going there to see the wall and photograph it as a souvenir.

Even the guest-house has remained largely empty. The Anastas family could have spared itself all the headache of the conflict and immigrated like most of their neighbors. But the five-member family preferred to stay, making it one of the few well-to-do Christian families who are not willing to leave Bethlehem. “Christmas is supposed to be a holiday to celebrate, but the current situation does not allow us to even have that,” said the family member.

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