"O little town of Bethlehem..."
The words of this timeless Christmas carol are a touchingly personal description of the city where Jesus Christ was born. Simple, humble, the lyrics convey not only the most enchanting qualities of the town, but of the Savior who began his earthly life there.
Phillips Brooks, a Philadelphia rector, traveled to Palestine in 1868. Awed by the view of Bethlehem from the surrounding hills at night, he wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The carol is profoundly moving; even more so to those who have gazed upon that ancient landscape.
"It couldn’t have been anyplace else," I remember thinking, looking over Shepherd’s Field.
Personal yet universal, Brooks’s simple and cherished words have taken on a harsh irony today. The humanitarian crisis in Palestine is growing worse by the hour, threatening the very existence of the Christian population in the birthplace of Christianity.
"O little town of Bethlehem..."
Little town, indeed. And becoming smaller with every new, more invasive Israeli annexation.
"The Israeli government just confiscated 14 percent of the birthplace of Christ." Bethlehem’s Mayor, Dr. Victor Batarsa’s complaint fell on deaf ears. Included in the latest Israeli land grab in the Northern Bethlehem District were shops, religious and social centers and other privately owned property.
Additionally, Israel confiscated a strategic 38 acres of Palestinian land south of Bethlehem. Official reasons were for "military purposes" and the "security wall," referring to the massive barrier currently under construction. In actuality, the land is being used for road projects to connect Jewish settlements around Bethlehem.
The roads will be for Jewish settlers; Palestinians will be prohibited from traveling on them. Neighboring villages will be isolated from one another, in some cases completely encompassed by either wall or the Jewish-only roads. Even now, Bethlehem residents have to apply for permits from the Israeli government if they wish to travel to Jerusalem, six miles away.
"How still we see thee lie..."
The last several years of Israeli closures and checkpoint labyrinths have impacted Bethlehem’s once thriving tourism industry significantly. Throughout 2006, occupancy rates at hotels in Bethlehem barely reached nine percent. Pro-Israeli Christian groups who organize Holy Land tours omit Bethlehem, citing "security concerns." As no attacks on tourists have ever occurred in Bethlehem, these "concerns" are a bogus attempt to vilify Palestinians. And they have the audacity to call it a Christian pilgrimage.
Needless to say, such conditions have paralyzed the local economy. Olive wood Nativity scenes and Christmas ornaments collect dust on shelves. Beleaguered shopkeepers and artisans are short not only on customers, but raw materials as well. In June, Israeli bulldozers destroyed several acres of prized olive trees to prepare for a new section of barrier wall.
"Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by..."
"It was a spiritless day," Auxiliary Bishop Pierre Burcher of Switzerland recalls his visit to Bethlehem. Spiritless. The place where mankind’s hope was fulfilled remains in a deep and dreamless sleep day and night. The wall, nearly 26 feet high, surrounds Bethlehem. By comparison, the Berlin Wall was a little less than 12 feet high.
Yet the silence in Bethlehem is preferable to the orgy of mockery that took place 18 miles southwest in Hebron. Tove Johansson, a 19 year-old Swedish human rights worker had volunteered to escort Palestinian children through an Israeli checkpoint to and from school. On November 20, her small group was confronted by approximately 100 Jewish settlers. The settlers began spitting upon and kicking the volunteers.
"We killed Jesus, we’ll kill you, too!" the settlers chanted; the refrain had become familiar to those working in the area.
"Jesus was gay!" they continued taunting, growing steadily more vicious. Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint did nothing to intervene. The attack culminated in one settler hurling a bottle at Johansson, breaking her cheekbone. As she lay on the ground bleeding, the mob cheered. The assailants were never apprehended.
And the world was silent.
"Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light..."
Swiss Bishop Burcher, was encouraged later in his visit by attending services in the Church of the Nativity. "I was impressed by the participation and recollection of the faithful," he said after celebrating Mass.
Although Bethlehem’s Christian community has declined sharply, those remaining practice their faith enthusiastically and without interference from the majority Muslim population. Contrary to a Congressional resolution last summer, Christian-Muslim relations are strong.
The resolution, introduced by Texas Republican Michael McCaul, stated Muslim persecution has led to a Christian exodus. Fifty years ago, Christians comprised six percent of the West Bank’s population; today they make up 1.5 percent. The draft included accusations of systemic discrimination and sexual harassment against Palestinian Christians.
Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor at Haifa’s Israel Institute of Technology asserted that nearly all of McCaul’s points are misleading or pure fabrication. Rather than facing discrimination, Christians have more than their fare share of representatives within the Palestinian Authority. Since taking power, Hamas has made no attempt to impose Islamic Law. The only threat to Christians’ freedom of religion is Israeli travel restrictions, a fact glaringly omitted from the resolution.
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
While the future of Christ’s birthplace looks bleak, there is hope. As American Christians become better informed about the situation in Bethlehem, we can become an effective force for change. After all, it was through $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees that made the barrier wall imprisoning Bethlehem possible. Most of all this Christmas, remember to keep the citizens of Bethlehem in your prayers.