Home / Not the Bethlehem of our thoughts

Not the Bethlehem of our thoughts

by Leila Sansour, December 29th

Christmas in Bethlehem this year was the most difficult in memory. This reality probably wouldn’t surprise most Americans who have a general sense of Middle East conflict. However, a survey we commissioned reveals that Americans are ignorant of many other basic facts about Bethlehem. Most Americans cannot identify our town’s location, its inhabitants, or the cause of Bethlehem’s demise according to most of its residents, Israeli military occupation.

Most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims, according to a nationwide survey by top U.S. pollsters Zogby International. Largely unaware of Bethlehem’s historic community of Palestinian Christians, only 15 percent of Americans realize that Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.

The Christians of the Holy Land are known as the Fifth Gospel or The Living Stones of the Church because Christ was born into our community and took his disciples from among our ancestors. Tragically, our community in Bethlehem may not survive another two generations if trends noted in a 2004 United Nations report on Christianity in Bethlehem continue.

Bethlehem has survived because it has remained open to the world, offering hospitality to pilgrims for centuries. This openness is threatened by the Israeli-built concrete wall and electric fences that encircle Bethlehem.

The wall is being built around Bethlehem’s urban core, though at the closet point Bethlehem sits one mile from the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border with the West Bank. The wall separates Bethlehem from neighboring villages and threatens to cut off 70 percent of Bethlehem’s land, thus facilitating the expansion of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.

Our lives are intimately bound up, economically and socially, with Jerusalem’s Christian community. Yet the wall and checkpoints prevent us from reaching that city, only 20 minutes away. Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher and their guardian Christian communities have been severed from each other.

The wall has caused a drastic reduction in visiting pilgrims. It has also meant that our livelihoods, dependent on land and water annexed by Israel in the name of security, have shriveled before our eyes, causing a gradual exodus of Palestinian Christians.

Today’s visitors to Bethlehem cannot escape a sense of imprisonment. The town’s geography, a hill surrounded by other hills, means that the 30-foot-high concrete walls and fences, topped by watchtowers, ring the skyline, producing a relentless feeling of claustrophobia.

Americans’ perceptions of these realities are wildly at odds with those of Bethlehem’s residents, according to another poll that we commissioned of 1,000 residents of Bethlehem.

While 78 percent of Bethlehem Christian’s blame the Christian exodus from the town on Israel’s blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9 percent) to blame Islamic politics, and are reluctant (7.4 percent) to blame Israel. And while four in 10 Americans believe the wall exists for Israel’s security, more than nine of 10 Bethlehemites believe its aim is to confiscate Palestinian land.

The Zogby survey suggests many Americans would be surprised that Palestinian Christians and Muslims form a single, multifaith community in Bethlehem. This is perhaps the most important lesson after the incarnation itself that Bethlehem can offer the world. Muslims and Christians here have lived alongside each other for centuries, and, if given the chance, will continue to do so. We are not being squeezed out by Islamism, but by economic hardship resulting from annexation of land, and entrapment behind a wall whose existence shames humanity.

Without sustenance from regular visits by pilgrims, Christianity as a lived faith will be extinguished here, and other centers of faith in the Holy Land may follow. It’s not just the living folk memory of the incarnation that would be lost, but a beacon of hope in the Middle East.

Our poll shows overwhelming American support for Bethlehem’s Christian heritage. Yet our survey of Bethlehem’s citizens shows the city cannot retain this heritage and its Christian community while the wall remains. The strangulation of Bethlehem is forcing Christians to seek livelihoods abroad.

The choice is stark. Either the wall stays and Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town or Bethlehem retains its Christian population, in which case the wall must come down. Americans need to wake up to what is happening here and choose.

Leila Sansour, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, is the founder and chief executive officer of Open Bethlehem, a nongovernmental foundation established to promote and protect the life and heritage of the city of Bethlehem (www.openbethlehem.org).