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Silent Night – Bethlehem’s Vanishing Christians

As people around the world celebrate Christmas, what will the Christians of Bethlehem be feeling?

Silent Night...

Bethlehem; It's the birthplace of Jesus, and the traditional heart and soul of Christianity. Bethlehem, historically a Christian city governed by Christians, and, with its sister towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur, the largest enclave of Christians in the West Bank. However, since 1995, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) assumed control of the city, Bethlehem has undergone stunning and disturbing changes to its historic Christian makeup and character.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has changed the city's municipal boundaries to incorporate 30,000 Muslims from three neighboring refugee camps, and thus severely tipping the demographic balance. The city has also added a few thousand Bedouins of the Ta'amra tribe, located east of Bethlehem, and encouraged Muslim immigration from Hebron to Bethlehem.

Although there are no confirmed figures, estimates put today's population at around 120,000 people. From a 60 percent majority in 1990, the Christians are now a 20 percent minority. The purging of Bethlehem's Christian character continues, viewed silently by their disinterested co-religionist and largely ignored by a world media focused elsewhere.
 

Holy Night...

PA officials publicly proclaim their respect for Christian holy sites and institutions. But events have demonstrated that PA officials and gunmen regard Bethlehem's revered Christian shrines as little more than handy objects for political and personal gain. The most blatant disregard for the sanctity of Christian holy sites has been at the Church of the Nativity.

The Church of Nativity, Bethlehem.
Above the entrance - posters showing Arafat, reminding the priests who is watching them.

 The New York Times reported that: "Palestinian gunmen have frequently used the area around the church as a refuge, with the expectation that Israel would try to avoid fighting near the shrine".
The Church was invaded in April 2002 by PA gunmen. They shot their way inside, attempting to evade Israeli soldiers who had entered Bethlehem to quell on-going violence and suicide bombings. This takeover was not an act of desperation nor did it centre over refugees seeking safe haven during the heat of battle. Over 100 armed and wanted terrorists invaded one of Christianity's holiest shrines, because it served their political agenda. As confirmed by Abdullah Abu-Hadid, a senior military commander in the Tanzim - a militia loyal to the PA's Chairman Yasser Arafat:  "The idea was to enter the church in order to create international pressure on Israel...."[1]

 The gunmen held the Church of the Nativity under siege for 39 days. They used the Church as a firing position on Israeli soldiers, who, respectful of the sanctity and reverence of the Church, did not return fire. Hostages freed during and after the siege reported extensive looting and damage to Church property by the militia.[2]

 All is calm...

Out of fear for their safety and to deflect the growing hostility of the city's Muslim majority, Bethlehem's Christian spokesmen aren't happy to be identified by name when they complain about the Muslim treatment of them. Those brave enough to speak out publicly risk PA accusation of "collaboration with Israel", subject to arrest, extensive interrogation, imprisonment, and execution. However, off the record, Bethlehem's Christian spokesmen speak of harassment and terror tactics, mainly from the gangs of thugs who have looted and plundered Christians and their property, under the protection of Palestinian security personnel.

Examples of this are many and varied. Dwellings belonging to the Comtsieh family were possessed by a Muslim tribe from the Hebron area, and despite a court injunction in their favour, the land was not returned to the original owner[3]. The head of the German Liaison Office to the PA protested against the turning of the  "Talitakoumi" Beit Jala School into a base for terror activities against Israel[4]. Women have consistently been abused, often leading to them becoming terrorists to save family honour[5].

Bethlehem's Christian residents rejoiced at the expulsion of the gunmen from Bethlehem at the end of the Church of the Nativity siege in 2002. Residents told of a two-year reign of terror imposed by the gunmen that included rape, extortion and executions. The gunmen were described as a criminal gang that preyed especially on Christians, demanding "protection money" from businesses. "Finally the Christians can breathe freely," said Helen, 50, a Christian mother of four. "We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are now going away[6]."

 All is bright...

Between the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords and the 1995 transfer of Bethlehem to the PA, Christians lobbied Israel against the transfer. The late Christian mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, warned that it would result in Bethlehem becoming a town with churches but no Christians. He lobbied Israel to include Bethlehem in the boundaries of Greater Jerusalem, as was the Jordanian practice until 1967[7].

The situation for Bethlehem's Christians has deteriorated to such an extent that, during his visit there in March 2002, Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to urge Christians: "Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem[8]."

 Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child...

Accused of wearing "permissive" Western clothing, Bethlehem Christian women have been intimidated. Rape and abduction of Christian women is also reported to have occurred (especially in Beit Sahur).

Johnny Talgieh, a 17-year-old altar boy, was fatally shot during an Israeli incursion in October 2001. His family erected a small stone monument in his memory on the spot in Manger Square where he died. The monument was kicked and spat on by gang members, then toppled with ropes and cables and left smashed on the ground.

 Holy Infant so tender and mild...

In the town at the heart of the story of Christ's birth, increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left many Christians reluctant to publicly display their faith or celebrate religious festivals, such as Christmas.

Sleep in heavenly peace...

Officially, the PA asserts its respect for religious freedom and responsibility to protect the Christian minority.2 Yet Bethlehem's Christians are responding to the PA's methods of respect and protection by fleeing. Those Christian residents unwilling or unable to flee know that they face an unpredictable future.

 If the Christian exodus continues at its present rate, the only Christian presence in Bethlehem may be foreign tourists. Bethlehem's Christian population may very well be consigned to a once upon a time Christians lived in Bethlehem historic footnote. Bethlehem's revered Christians shrines may one day become tourist curiosities, like the Nabetian city of Petra or the Roman amphitheater at Caesarea.

 Secure in societies that protect religious freedom, Christians around the world joyously prepare for the season of peace on earth toward men of goodwill. But for Bethlehem's Christians, given the realities of their daily lives and their uncertain future, the forthcoming Christmas season brings neither security nor joy...nor heavenly peace.

Additional Sources

1.  David Raab, "The Beleaguered Christians of the Palestinian-Controlled Areas", Jerusalem Letters/Viewpoints, The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1-15 January 2003

2.  "Report on International Religious Freedom - The Occupied Territories", Jewish Virtual Library, A Division of The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 1999.


[1] http://www.theprismgroup.org/TreatmentChristianArabs.htm

 

[2] After the incident, both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox priests were interviewed by the international media. For example, see "Greedy Monsters' Ruled Church," Washington Times, May 15, 2002.

[3] http://www.intelligence.org.il/eng/var/fatah.htm

[4] http://www.intelligence.org.il/eng/var/jala.htm

[5] http://www.intelligence.org.il/eng/bu/women/women.htm

[6] Sayed Anwar, "Exiled Palestinian Militants Ran Two-Year Reign of Terror," Washington Times, May 13, 2002.

[7] http://www.acpr.org.il/cloakrm/clk117.html

[8] http://www.theprismgroup.org/TreatmentChristianArabs.htm

 

The Church of Nativity, in 2002 occupied by Palestinian terrorists

 

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