While old women sell their wares in the tiny, crowded market, and men flock around vendors’ cages of pigeons, ducks and chickens, the sounds of a procession can be heard, making its way down from Star Street to Manger Square …
It is a chilly Saturday morning in Bethlehem on January 14, the date traditionally celebrated by many Christian Eastern Orthodox churches as New Year’s Day.
While old women sell their wares in the tiny, crowded market, and men flock around vendors’ cages of pigeons, ducks and chickens, the sounds of a procession can be heard, making its way down from Star Street to Manger Square in the center of the ancient town.
The procession consists of more than 1,000 Palestinian Christian children from over 50 Latin parishes across the West Bank, many of whom have never before had the chance to enter Bethlehem.
Holding banners and carrying olive branches, symbolic of peace, the baseball-capped children sing carols while making their way excitedly through Bethlehem’s winding cobbled streets, their chaperones – a combination of proud mothers and excited nuns – cheerfully urging them on.
This procession, organized by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, is the second annual Journey to Bethlehem, aiming to “demonstrate the importance of solidarity among the Christian denominations in the Holy Land”.
At a time when some Palestinian Christians fear that a widespread win for the Islamic organization Hamas in the upcoming Palestinian elections could be detrimental to an already isolated and fragmented group, this march is particularly symbolic.
Making up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population, with around 35,000 Christians in the West Bank and 3,000 in Gaza, this minority fears not only for its rights, but also for its existence.
Many Palestinian Christians have already emigrated in the wake of the most recent intifada’s violence and subsequent restrictions; in Bethlehem alone, it is estimated that over 2,500 Christians have left over the last four years.
This march, encompassing Anglican, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite and Lutheran communities, thus intends to send an important message of solidarity to its participants, and to the wider world.
As the children reach the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be where Jesus was born, excitement buzzes in the air. They take to the pews, amid giggles and shrieks, to listen to sermons from a variety of visiting clerics.
“We follow Jesus to Calvary, to the cross,” says Msgr. Peter Fleetwood of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. “We follow him to Jerusalem.”
For most of the children, however, this is an impossibility in anything other than spirit: despite Jerusalem’s Christian congregations gathering just a few kilometers away, Palestinians are currently unable to access the city without hard-to-obtain entry permits from the Israeli army.
Outside the packed church, program coordinator Ramzi Qumsiyeh dashes busily about. Following the ceremony, a whole host of activities have been arranged for the children, and with more than 1,000 to keep track of, this is no mean feat.
“This time,” he says, stopping to catch his breath, “we’ve been able to bring Christians from 13 different towns and villages: from Jenin, Nablus, Jericho, Beit Jala, and all around. The march,” he adds ruefully, “should have started on time, but we had to wait for the buses from Nablus and Jenin to arrive, as they got stuck at a checkpoint for hours”.
The children, he explains, are mostly between the ages of eight and 10, and participants from each different village have been given a different color baseball cap to help prevent chaos. The name for the march, he says, is “‘Searching for Freedom,’ something that all the children here are seeking.”
“People from the outside, you see,” Qumsiyeh continues, “can actually come to Bethlehem more easily than other Palestinians. We are hoping that we have entered some hope for freedom into the hearts of the children, because for many, the idea of coming to Bethlehem, to see the place where Jesus was actually born, was impossible.
“Many don’t even know there are other Christians in the world except for themselves,” Qumsiyeh adds. “It’s extremely important for them to realize that they’re not just a tiny minority within Palestine.”
As the ceremony draws to a close, a colorful sea of children pours out into the church courtyard, and is channeled toward a large school playground further down into the city. The occasional cry of “Hallelujah!” orchestrated by nuns, some of whom have baseball caps perched on top of their wimples, echoes through the streets.
Down in the playground, an enthusiastic lady with a megaphone calls out encouragement to the children, who cheer wildly when the name of their hometown is shouted out. Meanwhile, young Scouts busy themselves with transporting stacks of boxes, containing brightly wrapped chocolate Santas, for distribution to each child.
“It’s fun to make new friends here,” says Sandy Issam, a bashful 10-year-old girl, “I was looking forward to seeing all the other children and visiting the church. When we come here, it gives us an opportunity to love each other.”
“I feel happy,” adds her friend, Yvette Jusef, “because we can’t see the church all the time, so this is even more special”.
Sister Rosalia Nashaf, a nun originally from Nazareth, smiles and hugs the girls. “I’m so excited to see the children here,” she beams. “All the time in their everyday lives, they’re dealing with problems. But today I can see the joy on their faces. This event gives them more love, more joy, more peace.”
“It’s wonderful,” agrees Linda Saad, a mother-of-three from Nablus, who has accompanied her children on the trip. “It was a difficult journey: we left home at 5.30 in the morning, but only arrived here at 10 o’clock. We were kept waiting for two hours at the Hawara checkpoint.
“The adults,” she continues, “were nervous, but the children were fine – they sang carols and were so excited to be coming to Bethlehem. There aren’t so many Christians in Nablus, only about 1,600 in total, so it’s nice to see others”.
The distance from Nablus to Bethlehem, which took the group over four hours, is roughly 60 kilometers.
For others, the journey to Bethlehem, was equally difficult. Despite having the correct permits to travel, says Sister Samai Yasai of Jenin, their bus containing 55 children – 16 from Jenin and 39 from the Christian village of Zababdeh – was refused passage at one checkpoint, and she was forced to get off the bus and plead with the soldiers.
“‘They’re just children,’ I said, ‘please let us through’,” Finally, after long delays, the bus was allowed to continue to its destination.
On a low podium near the entrance to the schoolyard, a row of dignitaries begins to assemble for the passing out of the gifts of chocolate Santa Clauses, one for each child attending the procession. Ramzi Baram, an 11-year-old boy from Ein Arik, eagerly joins the queue.
“I’m very happy to be here. The best thing is seeing the church,” he says, eyeing the packages being handed out by the smiling Bishops. A close second, it seems, is the prospect of a large chocolate Santa.