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Bethlehem, Capital of the Christians

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Early Thursday 22nd December 2011, winter solstice
Capital of the Christians
from O Little Town of Bethlehem


The Old Town of Bethlehem as seen from Beit JalaBethlehem or Beit Lahem is an ancient city going back to the time of the Canaanites, first mentioned in the Egyptian Amarna Texts from the time of Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun, around the mid-1300s BCE. But it’s older than that. It is located on a hill 2,700ft (800m) up in the limestone highlands of the West Bank, watered by wells which go back thousands of years. It was a holy place long before Jesus’s parents ever got here.

To our modern knowledge, its first claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of King David, king of the Judaeans – he first ruled from Hebron but then, on uniting the Jewish tribes of Judaea and Samaria, he took Jerusalem as his capital from the Jebusites, who had been ruled by priest-kings, the most famous of them being Melchizedek, the initiator of Abraham.

I’m not sure whether the story of the census, causing Mary and Joseph to come to Bethlehem, is true – it might have been convenient as a narrative to portray Jesus being descended from the royal line of David while being born and raised in humble circumstances. There’s also something wrong with the dates of the census and Jesus’ birth around 6 BCE. This royal heritage would distinguish Jesus from the priesthoods and nobles of the time, portraying him as a religious reformer and holy man standing outside the constraining traditions of the time.

Mother Mary in BethlehemMuch of the Jesus story was written and re-edited by the early founders of the institutional Church, in the decades and centuries following his life. But there’s one thing I have observed here in Bethlehem (with my lifelong interest in power places and earth energies): this isn’t a place of Jesus but a place of Mary, and of the archetype of the mother and child. I get the feeling Jesus was born here because of that atmosphere. It was a goddess place long before Jesus came along.

Today, the matriarchal nuance of the place is good and strong, and children have a strong presence here too. Though men do the usual things that men do, if the women disagree or disapprove, it definitely doesn’t happen. It’s a nice town, friendly, nurturing and familial. As soon as you get off the 21 bus from Jerusalem you notice it: someone comes up saying welcome, asking your name, where you’re from and how long you’re staying. There is plenty of room at the inn. People’s hospitality and generosity is at times overwhelming.

Bethlehem is now a small conurbation of around 100,000 people. It is made up of the joined-up historic towns of Bethlehem (Beit Lahem), Beit Sahour (Shepherds’ Fields) and Beit Jala, plus several expanded villages such as Al Khader (St George’s) where I live, together with refugee camps such as Deheisheh and Aida, with infill building everywhere. Then there are many surrounding villages – to the north, many are separated off by the separation wall or they’re being encroached on by settlements or cleared by settlers and the Israeli army. But to the south there are lots of villages in what is still Palestinian territory.

Bethlehem used to be 80-90% Arab Christian but no longer. It was populated by members of the Syriac, Melkite, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and other churches of Christianity. Now it’s around 10%. This is not the fault of Muslims except inasmuch as, around 1948, they flooded in as refugees, tipping the demographic balance of the place.

Church of the Nativity, BethlehemThe main reason the Christian population has declined is emigration. Being culturally and ethnically more closely connected with Christian countries (many are descended from ancient Greeks, Romans or medieval Crusaders), more have left Palestine than is the case with Muslims. Many Palestinians you meet in the West are Christians. They have been Christians far, far longer than people of European stock.

Churches and Western NGOs have helped and encouraged Christians to leave. There has been a tendency common to many emigrants whereby, once an enclave is established somewhere in a host country, members of the wider family, community and clan follow them there. Nowadays Christian families in Bethlehem have networks of relatives abroad, and young emigrants get passed around the family overseas and protected by them, even entering businesses owned by them. The churches have played a key role in this emigration.

It was motivated no doubt by compassion and care but there is a regrettable side to this inasmuch as the Palestinian Christian community has thus been weakened and, slightly more sinister, it frees the churches from feeling responsible for supporting their members in the Holy Land. This political, rooted in historic frictions between the Church and Jews and, nowadays, between the Church and Israel – the Church seeks to avoid confronting Israel.

This is questionable. It frees the Church from walking its talk – Christianity is after all a religion of peace – and from incurring economic and political expense. It also renders the Israel-Palestine conflict into a two-sided rather than three-sided situation where the Christian element could conceivably act as a balancing and mediating force between Jews and Muslims.

Israelis, if they think about it, are fine with Christian defection, and they have helped it. Muslims regret the emigration, though they understand why Christians have left and many Muslims wish they could follow. Here and across the Middle East they have, throughout much of history, got on just fine, at least at street level.

There have been scrapes between the Muslim and Christian communities. But it has largely taken place during periods of conflict-intensity. One example took place in Beit Jala during the first intifada in the late 1980s, when Palestinian Muslim Tanzim fighters fired at the Israeli settlement of Gilo from near a church, knowing that the churches worldwide would make a fuss if the Israelis shelled it back. Beit Jala Christians didn’t like this.

Christmas in Manger Square, BethlehemMuslims get on fine with Christians in most circumstances. At Christmas, they happily swell the diminishing crowds of Christians simply because Christmas is a phenomenon where Palestine comes into the spotlight – and it helps that Jesus is a prophet of Islam. It brings energy and fun to Bethlehem – and people need it. Muslims accept Christian ways, and vice versa, and both interact freely with each other.

Bethlehem needs its Christians back but they now live on faraway shores, and many of their young, born in Europe and the Americas, no longer have personal memory of Palestine or feel strong links with it. There’s not much future here. Bethlehem has become Muslim, though the Christian presence and holy sites here are under no pressure from them. It’s rather sad: the Christian quarter in Bethlehem is rather empty and quiet, and Muslims have not moved in and settled it as Jews might.

It’s sad also about Christian pilgrims coming from abroad. Many ignore or are under-informed about the situation in Bethlehem. Some erroneously believe Bethlehem is in Israel – an idea reinforced by such things as Google Maps, which subtly highlight Jewish places and downplay Palestinian places. Yes, the conflict even plays itself out in supposedly authoritative maps.

The Israelis have also captured the pilgrim trade, and they generally discourage Christians from visiting Palestine – the two other main Christian sites, Jerusalem and Nazareth, are in Israel. Christian pilgrims come to Bethlehem on luxury coaches from Jerusalem, to be shunted through the Church of the Nativity in large guided groups, then they are taken to approved souvenir shops, perhaps to an approved café, and then back to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, shopkeepers serving pilgrims, such as my friends Adnan, John, Mohammed and Alaa Din get hardly any business, and the ordinary townsfolk are prevented from having meaningful interaction with pilgrim groups. The pilgrims are fed stuff about the Palestinians and their streets being risky and dangerous.

Another tragedy is the wall and settlements. Bethlehem has been encroached upon by the wall, which at one point at Rachel’s Tomb stretches right into town. It has been impinged on by settlements such as Gilo, Har Homa and Efrat. This confinement means that property prices in Bethlehem have shot up, making life more difficult, and population density has increased. Just next door to the school a three-storey house is being raised by an extra two storeys to accommodate new generations of the family, simply because there is no space to spread out.

Peace and goodwill to all. This message emanates from this place and, at Christmas, people sing of that Little Town of Bethlehem lying sweetly in the peaceful landscape of the Holy Land. Silent night, holy night… But Christians worldwide should come here to take a look and see what has happened. The capital of the Christians, while still alive, is not well. Christian advocacy of peace has led to a sort of indifference in the Christian world, a turning away from awkward facts that have arisen in the Holy Land.

I have a lot of respect for ‘true’ and courageous Christians who come here to carry out humanitarian work – such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams who accompany and assist Palestinians in dealing with settlers and soldiers. But Christians implicitly support Israel in its invasion and oppression of Palestine, either actively amongst Christian Zionists and American Neocons, or passively by simply turning away. Jesus needs to have a word with them.

Meanwhile, many humanitarian volunteers here in Bethlehem aren’t Christian – they’re people, many of them young and secular with a sense of justice and human rights, with a good smattering of older oddbods like me, a citizen diplomat with a caring heart. So be it.

Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas from Bethlehem. Please put in a prayer for the people of this town. Come over to visit sometime – it’s not dangerous. Interestingly, more women than men tend to come to visit, stay or volunteer. Even if you just talk, listen and give people a little business, and even if you’re on a budget, you’re bringing good to these isolated people. European pilgrims used to spend years journeying here a thousand years ago… so in these days of cheap flights, it’s not difficult. It might be the best trip you ever made.


© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book O Little Town of Bethlehem by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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