A mere nine kilometers separates Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, from Jerusalem, where he was crucified, died and was buried.
A mere nine kilometers separates Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, from Jerusalem, where he was crucified, died and was buried. Pilgrims can easily visit both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in half a day–as long as they are not Palestinian Christians. Israel’s security wall, its restrictive exit permit system, roadblocks and military checkpoints now make it impossible for most Holy Land Christians to visit the shrines that, for all Christians, make the Holy Land holy.
Like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank, not the State of Israel. Temporary exit visas to go from one to the other to worship–or see a doctor or even visit relatives–are hard to come by, of brief duration even when granted, and always subject to the whims of Israeli soldiers.
The squeeze is economic as well as religious. Few producers in Bethlehem can get their goods to markets in Jerusalem. Fewer buyers can get to Bethlehem to sustain its markets. Tourism, a huge segment of the city’s economy, is up since 2004, but it is still far from robust.
When last I was in Bethlehem, in 2000, an average of more than 91,000 tourists visited the city monthly. This year, the average is half that number. When buses do arrive, tourists are routinely whisked in and out without time to shop. As a consequence, nearly 100 hotels and restaurants have closed since my last visit. More than 250 workshops that made olive wood crèches, mother-of-pearl crosses and other religious souvenirs have disappeared too. And so, of course, have many of the stores that sold them. In sum, where Bethlehem once enjoyed one of the lowest urban unemployment rates in the Holy Land, it now has one of the highest–by some estimates as much as 60%.
Recently on a visit, former British prime minister Tony Blair tried to boost tourism to Bethlehem, even though his own country, like the U.S., discourages its citizens from traveling there. He also called on Israel, which bans its own citizens from traveling to the West Bank, to ease its restrictions.
Israel, of course, must protect its security. But it cannot blame the Christians’ dire circumstances on the second intifada: Muslims are suffering just as much as the tiny Christian minority. Indeed, Bethlehem has historically been one place where Muslim-Christian relations have been remarkably friendly. Now, however, urban Bethlehem finds itself encircled by Israeli settlements, and where the settlers go, there follows the concrete wall, topped in places by razor wire and snipers’ towers.
For example, the wall is being completed around Beit Jala, separating this Christian village from 70% of its lands, which are mostly owned by Christian families. Some of the families are attempting to contest the confiscations in court, but construction–and the confiscation–goes on.
In Bethlehem itself, the wall severs the city from nearly three-fourths of its western villages’ remaining agricultural lands, as well as water resources that have served the region since Roman times. This area contains much of Bethlehem’s remaining room for development and its nature reserve, where city dwellers took their children.
From the Church of the Nativity, Christians can also look out on Har Homa ("Wall Mountain"), a verdant Jewish settlement on a hillside that was formerly Christian land. Since the Annapolis, Md., meeting just a few weeks ago, the Israelis have approved construction on 300 additional homes–despite an official complaint from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice–that further constrict the city’s population.
Unfortunately, many Christians in the Holy Land have no legal recourse to this absorption of their lands and property. As part of the 1993 treaty between Israel and the Vatican, by which the Holy See officially recognized the State of Israel, Israel was to codify the rights of Christian churches and institutions as part of a comprehensive agreement. But because of disputes over taxation of churches and related issues, the Knesset has yet to act. The Franciscans, the Sisters of Charity and other religious groups both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox have had property confiscated and Christian housing destroyed.
Israel cannot afford to lose the Palestinian Christians: They have long represented a moderating force. A century ago, they accounted for 25% or more of the Holy Land population. Today, they represent less than 1.5%. Since 2000, Bethlehem alone has lost 10% of its Christian population.
Palestinian Christians regard their ancestors as the first Christians, and no doubt some of them were. They call themselves the "living stones" of Biblical Christianity, preserving ancient communities and traditions in the midst of repeated armed conflicts. They deserve to keep their land and work for "peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
In this crisis they deserve the support of all Americans, not just Christians. And not just at Christmas.