Thursday, February 01, 2007

Beyond Bethlehem

Bethlehem holds a special place in the hearts of Christians. Even from our earliest memories, before we understand the words of Jesus, we know about the baby born in Bethlehem through stories told in word and pageant. In fact, we often begin our journey as his disciples when we as children -- dressed as angels, shepherds or sheep -- meet him in Bethlehem.

And yet modern American Christians have little understanding or experience of the Bethlehem of today. Recent surveys of the opinions of American Christians and Bethlehem residents show extreme differences between our perceptions and their lived realities. Among the most surprising differences are that most Americans are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem (even though the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem has declined from 80% to 15% over the past 60 years, a Christian community still exists there).

According to Open Bethlehem, which commissioned the Bethlehem poll:

Most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims, according to a nationwide survey by top U.S. pollsters Zogby International. Largely unaware of Bethlehem's historic community of Palestinian Christians, only 15 percent of Americans realize that Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.

The Christians of the Holy Land are known as the Fifth Gospel or The Living Stones of the Church because Christ was born into our community and took his disciples from among our ancestors. Tragically, our community in Bethlehem may not survive another two generations if trends noted in a 2004 United Nations report on Christianity in Bethlehem continue.

Bethlehem has survived because it has remained open to the world, offering hospitality to pilgrims for centuries. This openness is threatened by the Israeli-built concrete wall and electric fences that encircle Bethlehem.

Fears for the survival of Bethlehem are based on many factors. A prime indicator of hardship in this tourist town is the drop in the number of visitors -- with an accompanying decline in related businesses. Whereas, before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month, last year, at what is usually the height of tourist season, only 2,500 foreign visitors came for Christmas.

Tourism only accounts for part of Bethlehem's financial difficulties. According to the city's mayor, Dr. Victor Batarseh,

"With the closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the limitation of permits granted by the Israeli authorities, unemployment has soared to 65 percent, which simply means that 65 percent of the people of Bethlehem live under the poverty line," he said.

"In light of the prevailing acute financial crisis in which we are living, the municipality couldn't pay the salaries of its employees for more than three months now," Batarseh said. "There will be no new clothes for the employees' children this year, and Santa will not visit them."

As the mayor notes, The city's challenges, go beyond financial.

“[Bethlehem] has been turned into a big prison for its citizens by the settlements that surround it and envelop it in all aspects, and because of the Wall which has further tightened control over the city, and the army checkpoints at all the entrances.” Amid all this, the mayor reminds, are daily Israeli invasions. “Israeli forces storm the city and its environs on a daily basis, without missing a beat for more than a month. They besiege houses and shoot citizens, killing and injuring a number of them. This is apart from the large-scale arrest campaign against young people. The effects have been huge and tourism, particularly in the hotels, is expected to be extremely low this year.”

Aside from the many daily impacts of the occupation, the growing presence of the Separation Wall overshadows Bethlehem in many ways. The wall has cut into the city -- 15 percent of which, its northern section, has been lost in the last year. The northern barrier has also cut off access between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, so that there is no longer geographical contiguity -- making it more difficult for the Christian communities to share in mutual celebration of Holy Days. In addition,

The wall is being built around Bethlehem's urban core, though at the closest point Bethlehem sits one mile from the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. The wall separates Bethlehem from neighboring villages and threatens to cut off 70 percent of Bethlehem's land, thus facilitating the expansion of Israel's illegal West Bank settlements."

Being unaware of these daily realities, Americans' perceptions are at odds with those of Bethlehem's residents.

"While 78 percent of Bethlehem Christian's blame the Christian exodus from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9 percent) to blame Islamic politics, and are reluctant (7.4 percent) to blame Israel. And while four in 10 Americans believe the wall exists for Israel's security, more than nine of 10 Bethlehemites believe its aim is to confiscate Palestinian land."

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute sees this lack of awareness among Americans for the plight of Bethlehem’s people as

a metaphor for the entire Palestinian situation. When Americans think at all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do so through the prism of the Israeli narrative. They either do not see the Palestinian side of the story, or see a Palestine gutted of its human content.

In this context, Palestine becomes merely a “problem to be solved,” or an issue of terrorism to be stopped, or refugees to be resettled.

The result is that the Palestinian story, as told in the West, is never about real people struggling to survive, living as they do under the yoke of occupation. But the reality is that Bethlehem, like the rest of Palestine, is, in fact, populated by real people facing conditions of harsh foreign domination not unlike that experienced by the city’s inhabitants 2,000 years ago.

In a recent article on Beliefnet, Deanna Murshed responds to these survey results by asking
Will we in the West only see Bethlehem as a quaint town on holiday cards and nativity scenes? Or will we open our eyes to the present realities that affect our real, though distant, relatives?

As Christians, it is natural that we should be concerned about the well-being of Holy Land Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ -- even those whose church traditions are unfamiliar to American Mainline Christians. It is natural that we would be concerned about the preservation of the Holy sites of our faith and other antiquities. But as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, we also are called to care about more than sacred places and about more than just our sisters and brothers, even our extended families of faith. Not only did Jesus embrace the Hebrew tradition of welcoming the stranger, he taught his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. If we care that our brothers and sisters in Christ may live in peace, then we need to pray for their neighbors as well, whether their neighbors are friends or enemies, allies or oppressors.

Our journey may begin in Bethlehem, where the places of Shepherd's Field and Nativity square evoke childhood memories, where we feel comfortable with our family of faith. But Christ calls us beyond our comfort zone to view unfamiliar places and people through his eyes, to follow in his path seeking justice and mercy. I take one of the inspirations for the the mission of this blog, Beyond Bethlehem, from a poem by the African-American theologian Howard Thurman, "The Work of Christmas":

When the song of the
angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes
are home,
When the shepherds are
back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
--Howard Thurman

cross-posted at Street Prophets