CHRISTMAS IN BETHLEHEM

During my first visit to Israel/Palestine in 2002, which I write about in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides,  Bethlehem was still a relatively robust place. Even Christmas was special. A large Christmas tree stood in Martyr’s Square with lights and ornaments gleaning. Today, with the occupation ever more repressive, the scene has completely changed.

Tradition holds that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built over the manager in the stable where Jesus was laid by his mother because there was no room for them at local inns. The church itself is an imposing rectangular stone-built basilica built in 333AD by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. The location of the manger, marked by a silver star, is a grotto beneath the church reached by narrow stairways on either side of the main hall.

I recall the first time I entered the church through the “Door of Humility,” bowing my head and stepping over the worn lintel into the chill, dim, colonnaded open interior of the church devoid of long wooden pews or seating of any kind. The door was not made to instill a proper sense of reverence and humility but to prevent armed men on horseback from charging into the church, long a place of refuge from the wars and conflicts that have afflicted Palestine for millennia.

In the spring of 2002, shortly after my visit to this city, the church became a refuge again, this time against Israeli troops who drove Palestinian fighters into the sanctum and laid siege to the basilica for thirty days.

While the ‘kings from the east’ were able to travel from afar bearing gifts to honor the newborn child, one can only imagine the difficulties they would encounter today had they to deal with Israeli soldiers at the Allenby Bridge, a crossing from Jordan into the West Bank, arriving from the east. The kings would have been forced to stand in long lines for hours and then interrogated.  “Where are you from?”, “Who are your parents, grandparents?”, “Why have you come?”,  “Who do you intend to visit?” In the end, these hapless ‘kings from the east’ would probably have been refused entry.

Likewise, the residents of Bethlehem face a similar dilemma. They, too, are not allowed to move about freely. They face multiple checkpoints to reach other towns and cities in the West Bank, that is if their occupiers give them permission to travel at all. Even to gain entrance to Jerusalem, where Jesus met his death by crucifixion at the hands of Roman occupiers, Palestinians need a permit.

Two thousand years ago, while Palestine was subject to another harsh occupation, much as it is today, conditions then at least allowed the residents greater mobility than that given to current inhabitants. Traditions says that Joseph had to take his expectant wife from Nazareth where they were living, to Bethlehem in order to fulfill a requirement, imposed by the authorities, to register in their ancestral village as part of a nationwide census. Today, given the necessity of a travel permit to leave one’s village to travel to another village, this would have been impossible.

Today, no Palestinian from Bethlehem can move to Nazareth. The occupation and closure across the West Bank makes that sort of move impossible. Israeli law even forbids an Arab from Nazareth which is located in Israel proper, from marrying a Bethlehemite and bringing that spouse across the Green Line to reside in Israel. Thousands of Palestinians in Bethlehem can see Jerusalem from their homes but they cannot go to the Holy City to pray without a permit from Israeli authorities. Likewise, Christians from Jerusalem cannot go to Christmas service in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity to pray alongside their European and American co-religionists.

There is a traditional Christmas carol which asks “What child is this?” The answer, of course, is “Jesus, the son of Mary.” As we enter our places of worship this Christmas, and recall this helpless child, born as an outcast in a lowly manger, we should also remember that all vulnerable children, whether Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani, whether living under occupation or fleeing conflict, are collectively our children to acknowledge and protect, as the shepherds and ‘kings of the east’ did when they came to honor and safeguard their newborn king.

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