The Mayor of Bethlehem has declared the town of Jesus' birth an 'open city' and launched its own passport.
His declaration came at a meeting in London yesterday.
The initiative is designed to draw attention to the fact that the city is now 'imprisoned' by the separation wall and militarised fences, with only two gates to the outside world.
The Mayor is travelling with Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of the 'Open Bethlehem' campaign who will go on to Washington to launch the passport in the States.
"We recognise we have to act", says Dr Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem. "The passport is a way to ask people to step up to the plate. Invest in Bethlehem, bring projects to the city, or come and live among us – and you can also be a Bethlehemite."
Leila Sansour said: "The current situation is grim. The walls and fences that encircle Bethlehem have turned this 4000 year old city into a prison for its 160,000 citizens. The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2000 to a mere 7,249 in 2004. In the last five years 9.3 per cent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated. Restaurants, shops and commercial outlets have shrunk and Bethlehem's economy is threatened."
The loss of Bethlehem to the world, she said, "would have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East, on Christianity worldwide, and on the relationship between Christian nations and other countries."
"Bethlehem is in risk of losing its unique place as the anchor of the Christian community in Palestine. Almost half of Palestinian Christians live in our city. If Christianity cannot survive in the birthplace of Christ, the community loses its centre and has little chance of surviving in the rest of Palestine. If Christianity disappears in the Holy Land with its 2000 years uninterrupted tradition, it has little chance of surviving in the rest of the Middle East: in Iraq, in Syria, Egypt, Israel or Turkey. The consequences would be grave, feeding the ground for sectarian conflicts across the world for centuries to come."
The Open Bethlehem initiative will issue the passport to friends of Bethlehem as part of a campaign to encourage trade partnerships, investment, tourism, events, and to attract creative opportunities to the city. The core of its message is that Bethlehem is a city of openness and diversity, with a centuries old tradition of welcoming travellers, refugees and pilgrims from across the world.
Open Bethlehem already has the support of international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter; the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Archbishop of Jerusalem His Excellency Michel Sabah.
Dr Desmond Tutu said: "It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia