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Embattled Bethlehem: Leaders Seek American Christian Support

WASHINGTON, DC, October 25, 2002 (OCNS) — Church records kept by Franciscan Fathers in Bethlehem helped the city’s current mayor, Hanna Nasser, to trace his family roots there back as far as 1609. Most Palestinian Christians have far older legacies in the Holy Land. They consider themselves converts of Jesus or St. Paul. But these days, long embattled, their continued presence there is threatened.

WASHINGTON, DC, October 25, 2002 (OCNS) — Church records kept by  Franciscan Fathers in Bethlehem helped the city’s current mayor, Hanna Nasser, to trace his family roots there back as far as 1609. Most Palestinian Christians have far older legacies in the Holy Land. They consider themselves converts of Jesus or St. Paul. But these days, long  embattled, their continued presence there is threatened.

“The Christian minority in Bethlehem is bleeding,” Mayor Nasser said at the third international conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation held at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC October 18 and 19.

In the last 18 months, more than 1,500 Christians from Bethlehem, and adjacent Bait Jala and Beit Sahour have emigrated. Only 40 percent, or 13,000, of Bethlehem’s residents are Christian today compared with 95 percent in 1948. The decline results from two factors. The initial founding of Israel in 1948 forced Moslems to leave southern Palestine for Bethlehem refugee camps, which shifted the demographics. Now causing the population drop is Christian emigration due to “the continuous political unrest and difficult economic conditions with all the accompanying injustices … imposed by the Israeli occupation,” Nasser said.

Brutal Conditions Reduce Christian Map

According to Dr. Jad Isaac, director general of the Applied Research  Institute- Jerusalem, Israel confiscated from Palestinians more than 100,000 acres of land, uprooted nearly a quarter million trees, and  demolished more than 718 houses in the West Bank between 1993 and 2002. In addition, Palestinians are permitted to use only 18 percent of their water resources.

On September 11, 2002, while the American media and public were focused on U.S. commemorations of our own national tragedy, the Israeli security cabinet decided to annex Rachel’s tomb, which includes 25 percent of Bethlehem’s master plan and its most vital economic and tourist area. Mayor Nasser is gravely concerned that the 3,000 Palestinians living there, 90 percent of them Christian, will lose their property through Israeli confiscation.

Recently, another 10,000 acres in North Bethlehem were annexed by Israel, according to the mayor, to establish a “security envelope” around  Jerusalem. To accomplish this border expansion, Israel confiscated Palestinian land or blocked access to it with a ‘secure’ dividing road, and demolished Palestinian homes.

“Christians are driven to seek safer places where human rights and daily  bread for their children can be secured,” the mayor explained.

Nasser welcomes a recent designation by Yasser Arafat of10 towns in the Palestinian Territories as Christian. So even if the Christian presence there is a minority, these towns will retain Christian mayors. They include Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, Ramallah, Bir Zeit, Jifna, Aboud, Taybeh, Zababdeh, and Ein Areek.

The Western church’s neglect of Palestinian Christians baffles Christian  leaders on the front lines. “Christian holy places in Palestine have not had yet the necessary care nor support that matches their religious value and significance,” the Bethlehem mayor said. “I urge all Christians of the world to stretch out a hand of support to keep these Palestinian Christians steadfast in their home land.”

“It is a sacred duty to keep the holy land a place of living worship and  to safeguard its 2000 years-long Christian legacy.”

Mayor Nasser sees the needs of Arab Christians in Bethlehem as including: recognition of the brethren; investment in housing for young couples; financial aid for school tuition and medicine; encouragement through pilgrimages; advocacy for justice regarding their legitimate rights; and support for East Jerusalem as their capital to fulfill their national and religious goals.

Ultimately, only peace is likely to “drastically reduce the Christian emigration and to empower the viability of their communities in the Holy Land,” he said.

Christian Brothers Hold Fast to Bethlehem University

At the only remaining Christian university on the West Bank, Bethlehem University, Brother Vincent Malham, along with six other U.S. De La Salle Christian Brothers and a Jesuit, endured curfew, which amounts to house arrest, for 100 days between April to August. They stayed on campus in order to prevent the Israeli army from destroying buildings, though nonetheless, Israeli missiles and bullets caused extensive damage to the facilities. Soldiers used Brother Vincent, the university president, and another brother as a human shield while going across campus during a break in the curfew. The entire summer term had to be cancelled and graduation was postponed indefinitely.

Brother Vincent, a native of Arkansas, is presenting a letter to the U.S.  Congress to decry the interruption of recent academic years by Israel’s military closures of Palestinian towns. The letter says that a generation of Palestinian children have been denied the right of education, among other rights. It calls on the government of Israel to comply with the 4th Geneva Convention.

A third conference speaker from the area, the Legal Advisor to the Latin  Patriarch, was denied a visa; so, he could not report to the conference on  the summer negotiations with the Israeli army over the siege of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who attended the  third annual conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation  held in Washington, DC, on October 18 and 19, 2002. Orthodox News thanks  Ms. Murphy for contributing this story.

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Orthodox Christian News Service, Inc. 

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2016-10-24T07:32:59+00:00 November 5th, 2002|Categories: Uncategorized|