Holy Land's Christians Honor Their Heritage, Live Their Faith - And Suffer in Conflict
Bethlehem and Ramallah
The Church of the Nativity stands at one end of Manger Square, beckoning to pilgrims and the curious alike to see the place where, tradition says, Jesus was born. The church itself reveals the layer upon layer of history that this site has witnessed, from early church believers to crusaders to current-day political strife.
The place where Jesus is said to have been born is richly adorned with the fineries of Orthodox liturgical arts. A silver star covers the rock upon which the infant Jesus lay.
This history is often overlooked by some of our Christian brothers and sisters who ignore the fact that indigenous Christians have been in the Holy Land for two thousand years. These sisters and brothers overlook the fact that, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, and all over the Middle East, there are living Christian communities who honor their heritage, who live their faith daily, and who suffer from the hostilities that are part of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Observing the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square, the town of Bethlehem, and the outlying countryside brings sadness, despite the joy of being in the place of Christ’s birth. This sadness comes from the fact that Manger Square, once a bustling center of activity, is now empty of tourists and pilgrims who fear the violence that has engulfed this place. The sadness comes from the Wall that borders much of the town and, with armed Israeli guards watching over it, cuts off the Palestinians who live here from one another.
The sadness comes from seeing Palestinian land, covered with olive groves and terraces cultivated over generations, now confiscated by the Israeli Government to make way for the continuation of the Wall. One wonders at the confiscation of so much land. It would appear that the reason given for the Wall – legitimate fear of terrorism – is not the real reason at all. This would seem to be confirmed when, at at least one point a couple of days later, we saw Palestinians moving back and forth in a gap in the Wall with Israeli soldiers standing by no more than 25 yards away.
The sadness also comes from seeing ancient olive trees, numbered with huge red, spray-painted numbers, marked for removal and probable replanting on Israeli territory. Americans will remember years ago, when we were asked to donate money to plant a tree in Israel, something we gladly did to make the desert bloom. It saddens the observer to wonder if the further greening of the desert will be done with stolen trees.
In the midst of this sadness, we experienced a glimmer of hope. The Bethlehem International Center, attached to the Lutheran Christmas Church, runs programs that seek to restore the dignity to the Palestinians living in this area. There are art classes for children, cultural presentations in a large, state-of-the-art auditorium, a highly-regarded school and health center, and other such programs that all contribute to the healing of the people. In the midst of chaos, Rev. Mitri Raheb and his staff live out the Gospel, restoring the dignity to the people they serve.
Going from Bethlehem to Ramallah, we began to see the difficulty that comes with living in the midst of the Occupation. The Wall is not the only reminder of the divisions between people. The checkpoints make it difficult for people to pass from one place to another. Permits restrict the movement of people, keeping them separated from family, friends, employment, education and other things. As we prayed an a small hill overlooking one checkpoint, an Israeli jeep occupied by armed soldiers threatened to destroy a fruit-seller’s stand if he did not move it in two minutes. We also prayed at the site where house demolitions emptied an entire neighborhood.
Certainly there is much sadness in this place. But there is also hope. How do I know this? I saw it in the eyes of the children we met, who have seen pain but only can look forward to what may come tomorrow.