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The Bethlehem Museum façade, its doors finally opened to visitors after this 30-year-long vision came to life

After 30 years of patient determination, the Bethlehem Museum for History, Heritage and Culture finally opened on February 28, 2015. The Arab Women’s Union of Bethlehem (AWU) initiated the Museum in 1977, but it was held from completion due to a variety of obstacles. The Holy Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) saw the Museum’s potential and knew it fit perfectly with the organization’s mission. In 2012 HCEF partnered with AWU to bring the Bethlehem Museum to life. 

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Ms. Virginia Canawati cuts a cake in celebration of the Museum opening

The Bethlehem Museum was opened under the auspices of Palestine’s President, His Excellency Mahmoud Abbas. The Bethlehem Museum’s mission is to foster “a deeper understanding and appreciation for the role Palestinian Christians play in preserving Palestine’s heritage, identity, and culture.” 

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Distinguished guests, joined by over 250 other visitors, listed from Left to right: HE Abdul Majid Atta , Mufti of the Bethlehem Governorate; HE Sheikh Maher Assaf, Chaplain of Political Direction; Ms. Virginia Canawait, Head of the AWU; Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Chairman of HCEF’s Advisory Board, Archbishop Fuad Twal; HE Major General Jibril Bakri, Governor of Bethlehem; HE Rula Ma’ay’ah, Minister of Tourism; Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS,  HCEF President and CEO; HE Vera Baboun, Mayor of Bethlehem; HE Ziad Al-Bandak, Presidential Advisor; and Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia, Atallah Hanna. They were also joined by June Kunugi, Special Representative of the UN Children’s Fund, Colonel Alaa Shalabi, General Director of the Bethlehem Police, and Counselor Ahmad Abu Ouf, Diplomat of the Egyptian Embassy. 

Visitors during the grand opening saw this mission accomplished firsthand, admiring the pristine and invaluable Palestinian artifacts on display at the Museum. This impressive collection includes artifacts of embroidery, such as traditional ornately designed Palestinian dresses, which were generously provided from the collection of Hanan and Farah Munayyer, Palestinian Heritage Foundation. Each dress was made in a style specific to its originating region in Palestine. They are among the rarest pieces on display in the Bethlehem Museum. 

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Left: Hanan and Farah Munayyer   Right: Old traditional Palestinian dresses and a headdress on display

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HCEF President and CEO, Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS

The pieces of history preserved at the Bethlehem Museum are rare and profoundly precious, but HCEF President and CEO, Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS, reminded visitors at the grand opening of the Museum’s deeper purpose: “My vision for the Bethlehem Museum is not to just show the treasures of Palestine, but to also tell the story of the people behind the Nativity. Through the Bethlehem Museum I hope to build community, show the world these treasures, and bring prosperity to the region.” 

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Mrs. Virginia Canawati steps into the past through old photographs of Palestinian families

Palestine and its people have persisted for thousands of years despite all the conflicts that have ravaged them in history. But so many pieces of that history, the artifacts of Palestinian heritage, have been scattered throughout the world. HCEF has sought to bring these artifacts home, and proudly display them in the Bethlehem Museum. These treasures are tangible proof of the substantial role Palestinians, the “Living Stones,” have played in the Holy Land’s grand story. 

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Researcher, heritage specialist, and one of the Museum’s main contributors, Farah Munayyer

Farah Munayyer, of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, encourged others to give generously as he did: “Many people, in Bethlehem and other areas of Palestine, can contribute to the museum. They can [donate] the things that their fathers and grandfathers have produced, so that the new generations can enjoy them in the future.”

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The Museum’s collection also includes ceramics/pottery, glass, paintings, icons, olive wood and mother of pearl. The latter two represent artifacts most prominent in Bethlehem’s specific history, with olive wood and mother of pearl artisans having lived in the area for many generations. Artisans continue to work prolifically in Bethlehem today, and visitors can preserve their trade and livelihood by purchasing their works in the museum’s gift shop. 

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Johnny Adonieh’s icons on display alongside an olive-wood replica of the Nativity Church

Esteemed contributors to the museum’s collection include: The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the Zachariah Family, the Micheal Freij Family, the Hanania Family, the Sansur Family, Akram Anastas, the Housh Family, AWU, and HCEF. The icons on display were produced by the renowned Palestinian artist, Johnny Adonieh. 

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Governor of Bethlehem, HE Major General Jibril Bakri

HE Major General Jibril Bakri said that, “HCEF brings me great hope and inspiration for the future of Palestine because it is caring for our past and our present.”

All together, the Bethlehem Museum features a rotating exhibition gallery, a permanent exhibition room, a VIP meeting room, a restaurant, a gift shop in addition to a library and a search center to welcome visitors and scholars that want to examine the collection of books, films and CDs.

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The ancient Roman aqueduct runs through the Museum passing many treasured objects including this traditional dress and headdress, proudly on display

Also among the treasures on display is a Roman aqueduct that runs through the Museum, unearthed during the building’s construction. This aqueduct carried water from Hebron to Jerusalem long before the time of Christ.

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HE Rula Ma’ay’ah, Minister of Tourism

HE Rula Ma’ay’ah, Minister of Tourism, was very proud of the Bethlehem Museum for providing a genuine learning experience for tourists, pilgrims, and locals, saying, “This Museum is very important since any person who enters it will know more about the history of Palestine and of course they will also enjoy their stay here.” 

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Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Chairman of HCEF’s Advisory Board, Fuad Twal

Speaking to the audience, His Beatitude Patriarch Fuad Twal stated, “It is true that we are more attracted to the modern aspects of life, but these are our roots and we must preserve them for the new generations. This is our identity, our history, especially for the Christian people of the Holy Land who must take care of it,” 

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Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia, Atallah Hanna, addressing the audience and admiring the Museum’s collection

Archbishop Atallah Hanna reflected on the tangible and symbolic victory the Museum represents, stating to visitors that, “The Bethlehem Museum has been erected in a time of great challenges, of darkness spreading through our region. Museums like this one are being destroyed elsewhere in the Middle East, but here the Bethlehem Museum stands, strongly and proudly. I stand proudly with it.”

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Mayor of Bethlehem, HE Vera Baboun

HE Vera Baboun praised the Bethlehem Museum, saying, “This establishment has my full support and confidence because it is here for the people of Bethlehem, to share their achievements with the world. It is also here to empower the women of our great and historical city, which makes me immensely proud.” 

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Embroideries handmade by local Palestinian women are on sale in the Bethlehem Museum Gift Shop

Through the Museum, HCEF is also dedicated to empowering Palestinian women. It directly supports more than 80 women producing local embroideries and other handicrafts, and it will focus on hiring women to fill its various job positions. This is partly in recognition of the invaluable, but too often underrated role that women have played in preserving Palestinian heritage. Not only have they maintained long held traditions through their embroidery, but they have passed down, from generation to generation, the story of Palestine and its character. They have raised their children to be proud of who they are. This contribution to Palestine cannot be measured, and the Bethlehem Museum is committed to honoring its great debt to these noble women. 

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The Al-Karmeh Restaurant of the Bethlehem Museum

The Bethlehem Museum will have a greatly positive impact on the local economy by attracting tourists with its focused and rare collection, as well as its restaurant which serves authentic Palestinian dishes, cuisine being another major component of Palestine’s heritage. The Museum’s gift shop is committed to fair trade, featuring the works of local artisans and artists and supporting initiatives such as Ma’an Lil-Hayat L’Arche Bethlehem and Al-Malath Charitable Society which support people with intellectual and physical disabilities. 

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The “Palestinian Surprises” exhibit in the Museum pays tribute to Palestinians of excellence around the world. Here a special place has been given to the late Said Khoury (June 6, 1923-October 15, 2014), a prominent Palestinian-Christian entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

Learn more about the Bethlehem Museum for History, Heritage and Culture.

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Sir Rateb Rabie, HCEF President and CEO, poses proudly with his staff who ensured the Bethlehem Museum opened successfully.