When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.â€
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.â€ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:15-19)
The words of scripture telling the story Jesus’ birth are treasured by Christian Palestinians who live in the Bethlehem region. They provide one of the foundations of our identity, as those born to live, work and witness in the place chosen for the birth of Jesus. This identity has given us hope and strength, even in days of tribulation. For many Christians the world over, these words also invoke a sense of peace and comfort. Eighteen months ago, when His Holiness Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Bethlehem in March 2000, he too referred to these familiar texts.
“Today we look back to one moment two thousand years ago, but in spirit we embrace all time. We gather in one place, but we encompass the whole earth. We celebrate one newborn Child, but we embrace all men and women everywhere. Today from Manger Square, we cry out to every time and place, and to every person, “Peace be with you! Do not be afraid!”
These words resound through the pages of Scripture. They are divine words, spoken by Jesus himself after he rose from the dead: “Do not be afraid!” (Mt 28:10). They are the words of the Church to you today. Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the Savior was born.” [Homily, March 22, 2000]. “Peace be with you! Do not be afraid!” Unbelievably, a year and a half later, these words now seem little more than a dream, as people are captive to fear in that same place. Over the last 13 months of the Intifada, Palestinians have been trying to comfort themselves with the belief that Bethlehem was a safe place, that the Israeli forces would never attack the center of the city, the very place remembered as the birthplace of Christ.
No one would have thought that someone could be shot on Manger Square in the middle of the day while sitting in front of a souvenir shop. Yet, on Saturday, 20 October 2001 the unbelievable happened. Johnny Thaljiya, a 17 year-old Christian Palestinian, lived with his family just off of Manger Square, where he grew up playing with his friends and attending the Greek Orthodox services at the Church of the Nativity. “From a young age he was always at the Church, always willing to help. He was loving toward every human being, a gift he received from God. We said his heart was as a diamond or gold,” explained Father Theophanis in a story in the Washington Post.
Johnny’s dream was to go to theological school and become a priest. On Saturday afternoon Johnny came out from vespers at the church and stayed on Manger Square to talk with his cousin. A short while later, a bullet claimed his life there. Tragically, rather than assisting with the Sunday service yesterday, at 15:30 local time, in the church he loved, his funeral took place. In the last 3 days, the people of Bethlehem are going from funeral to funeral, the sounds of the calls to prayer from the mosques and the sad bells of mourning ringing from the churches fill the air of Bethlehem. Manger Square which was renovated as a place to welcome the new millennium and visitors from around the world is now transformed into a site of mourning, as the numerous families grieving receive their condolence visits there in these days. Yet, in the midst of all this death and destruction, the world beyond seems ignorant of the reality in which we are living. Just yesterday evening one of our friends called from Germany asking about us. She said she was worried when hearing in the news that “some bullets were fired in the air of Bethlehem.” Well, yes, some bullets definitely were in the air…. But, this hardly describes the situation in Bethlehem. What is worrying us is that within less than three days sixteen people have been killed, mostly civilians in their home. And as we write this, just 300 meters from the church, tank shells are exploding and heavy machine guns are firing. Everyone is asking now, “How far will Israel go with this aggression?” Yesterday evening even the local public hospital in Beit Jala came under attack. The hospital director reported that it was hit at least five times within less than an hour. A young man was killed in the premises of the hospital and later, Amjed Abu Emya, the anesthesiology technician was injured. Tanks were positioned at the entrance of the hospital for a number of hours. Even now, our Christmas Lutheran Church has become a place of refuge for our volunteers and co-workers whose homes are in the midst of the firing. Unfortunately, this has become an on-going part of our history and ministry. In 1948, our church opened its doors for the refugees of 1948. Almost thirty years later, the church embraced refugees from the 1967 war. Are we seeing another wave of refugees in the aggression of 2001? Yet, despite all of this, although the words of scripture and Pope John Paul II seem like a dream, we are determined not to let fear capture us. We are determined not to let tanks control our lives. We are determined not to let our voices be silenced by missiles.
Yes, we have made our way today through the empty streets of Bethlehem, because we feel that we have a responsibility to carry out, to tell the story of the people of Bethlehem today. At a time when the world seems indifferent to our suffering, we write to you, calling upon you to be our voice in these difficult times, to work against injustice, proclaiming the message of the Child of Bethlehem, the Prince of Peace.
Ms. Viola Raheb
Rev. Sandra Olewine
Below are the names of those killed in the last few days:
- Ahmed Abayat – killed while going back from his work -Jerusalem – Wednesday 17/10/2001
- Atef Abayat, assassinated by car bomb, Beit Sahour, Thursday,18-10-2001;
- Issa Abayat, assassinated by car bomb, Beit Sahour, Thursday,18-10-2001;
- Jamal Abedallah, assassinated by car bomb, Beit Sahour, Thursday, 18-10-2001;
- Musa George Abu Eid, 19 years old, shot inside his home in Beit Jala, Friday 19-10-2001;
- Abed Abdelqader Abu Srour, 25 years old, shot next to his home, Aida camp, Friday, 19-10-2001;
- Mariam Subaih, 38 years old, a mother of six, shot next to her home in El-Khader village by tank shells, Friday, 19-10-2001;
- Rihab Nofal, 30 years old, a pregnant woman from Husan village; she was stopped at the Israeli checkpoint and denied passage to the hospital, she and her unborn baby died there, Friday, 19-10-2001;
- Rania Kharoufa, 22 year old, mother of two, shot in a shop while trying to hide from bullets shot from a helicopter, Beit Jala, Friday, 19-10-2001;
- Aysha Odeh, 39 years old, mother of 8, shot inside her home, Aida refugee camp, Friday, 19-10-2001;
- Johnny Yousif Thaljiya, 17 years old, shot while on Manger Square, Bethlehem, Saturday, 20-10-2001;
- Yousif Mohammad Abayat, 15 years, killed during shelling, Bethlehem, Saturday, 20-10-2001;
- Muhammad Sulaiman Baraq’a, 26 years old, disabled father of five, shot in his home, Azza/Beit Jibrin camp, Sunday, 21-10-2001;
- Nahed Hussain Aljuju, 40 years old, officer in the Palestinian National Forces, shot in fighting, Sunday, 21-10-2001;
- Issa Fouzi Abu Hlayel, 28, killed by a shell in front of Al-Hussein Hospital, Beit Jala, Sunday, 21-10-2001;
- Nidal Alian, 19 years, died Monday morning from the injuries he received two days ago. Monday, 22-10-2001