Busloads of tourists disembark in front of the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, Bethlehem. Many of them are Christian pilgrims from all over the world coming to worship in a place which has special significance for them. Many are praying, saying the rosary, or singing to familiar hymn tunes in a myriad of languages I don’t understand. They are whisked quickly round the holy sites, from church to church and of course to the souvenir shops. They almost never speak to local people other than official tour guides. It is entirely possible to go to Bethlehem and not notice the occupation. Special day trips are laid on from Jerusalem and pilgrims fast-tracked through the separation wall. Some people are even surprised to be told that Bethlehem is not in Israel but in the Israeli occupied Palestinian Territories. It has particular irony for their fellow Christians who live here and claim an unbroken line from the first Christians.
Life in Bethlehem is difficult under the occupation. Christian Palestinians suffer along with their Muslim brothers and sisters. There is no part of their lives which the occupation does not touch. Movement restrictions cut people off from traditional livelihoods; the separation barrier or wall annexes much of their land to Jerusalem. Many are leaving. Almost everyone has relations who have left, usually the young people. Grown up children issue invitations for their parents to join them. Reluctantly when it all seems too hard, they do. Others stay and carry out their own form of resistance.
Every Friday, in winter, in the olive groves of Beit Jala, Ibrahim Shomali celebrates mass. Beit Jala is a district of Bethlehem and the mass is a protest against land confiscation by the separation wall. There are two incomplete ends to the wall, one on the hill behind us and the other across the valley towards Jerusalem. All depends on how these two ends are joined up. Potentially the local people could lose most of their olive groves, an increasingly important income source in this devastated economy. The local monastery on whose land the mass is celebrated could end up separated from its sister convent. It is a lovely
service in beautiful countryside. I looked at the priest as he held up the cup and the wafer against a background of the illegal settlements of greater Jerusalem. He prayed for peace in his land, respect for his people and for a fair court judgement.
Round the corner from the Ecumenical Accompaniment placement flat, we attended the Friday ‘Wall Prayer’. We said the rosary with local Palestinians and some visitors, mostly in English and sometimes in Arabic as we walked slowly back and forth along a stretch of the massive concrete separation wall and came to a stop in front of an icon of Mary and the infant Jesus painted on the wall itself. After it had ended, our neighbour, Clemence Handal, told her story to the visitors. A refugee in 1948 from what is now Israel, she has lived since then here in Bethlehem. She pointed out her house and said quietly that this section of the wall was built on her land. Her hope is that one day walls will come down not just in her land but in the hearts of all the peoples who live in it.
Ashraf Tannous, the Evangelical Lutheran pastor in Beit Sahour, a district of Bethlehem better known as Shepherds’ Fields, gave me his Christmas message for people in Britain and Ireland. ‘We are not just Palestinian Christians, we are from the first Christians. A few metres away from here the angels appeared in this small town, to shepherds in their fields, preaching and announcing the birth of the king of peace in Bethlehem.’ He issued an invitation for a different sort of pilgrimage. ‘We send an open invitation from our hearts. Come and see us, come and visit us here in the holy land, because the moment you come you will be able to see the beauty of the birth of the Son of God. You will learn from us as Palestinians how to love, how to hope and how to be peacemakers.’
‘A version of this article was published in the December issue of Newslink – the diocesan magazine of the Church of Ireland diocese of Limerick and Killaloe’.
I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for I-oPt firstname.lastname@example.org for permission. Thank you.