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Bethlehem on the Rebound

Palestinian Christians hope for better times

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This article first appeared in the February 2011 edition of
'The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition' published in partnership with the ICEJ.

By Justus Reid Weiner

Each year during Christmas, the Christian world puts aside its other concerns and focuses on the birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago in the little Judean village of Bethlehem. The local celebrations are centered on Manger Square, a plaza in the middle of today’s much larger Palestinian town of Bethlehem which leads to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

As many as 90,000 visitors came to Bethlehem for Christmas observances this year, nearly twice last year’s total, resulting in the most successful holiday season in more than a decade. This merits reflection: Why was this Christmas different from all others in recent memory? How did it differ from the regional and historical trends which have in the past witnessed alarming levels of persecution and violence directed at Christians in the Palestinian territories? Having researched the plight of Christian religious minorities in the Middle East over the past 35 years, I have learned to be wary in accepting such good news.

Celebrating Jesus, Not Arafat

The swell of Christian visitors to Bethlehem this year far eclipsed figures in the range of a few thousand holiday visitors during the period of the Second Intifada, which PLO chief Yasser Arafat launched in 2000 and lasted roughly through 2005. This year merriment prevailed, shops were full of pilgrims, the hotels were overbooked, and the decorations and ornaments celebrated Jesus, not Palestinian nationalism and its Fatah leaders. Perhaps most significant, the streets were peaceful.

From the time he took control of Bethlehem on the eve of Christmas 1995 until his death, Arafat’s personage factored heavily in the annual Christmas celebrations. He was the featured guest of honor at Midnight Mass, always given a front row seat among the bishops and patriarchs despite his being a Muslim. In his very last years, Arafat was secluded in his Ramallah compound but had a trademark keffiyah draped over his empty chair in the Grotto of the Nativity to sadly note his absence.

Moreover, Arafat’s visage was prominently displayed on huge posters and banners adorning Manger Square each Christmas. If an alien from outer space had landed amidst the celebrations, he would have thought that Yasser Arafat had been born there – not Jesus.

In such acts, Arafat did his best to project a gracious ‘fatherly’ image to his people, while concealing his central role in stirring street violence and terrorism against Israel. It was this violence and terror which began to discourage pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Even before the second intifada erupted, young Muslim thugs had begun preying upon, harassing, intimidating, and sometimes mugging tourists. Year by year, fewer tourists and worshippers took the trouble to visit Bethlehem. Israeli security checks were also slow and tedious, dissuading pilgrims even more. The nadir for Bethlehem came around 2003, when Hamas elements decorated Christmas trees in Manger Square with the images of Palestinian “martyrs” who had carried out suicide bombings.

Those trends are all on the wane now, however, as violence and terror are down and a new IDF checkpoint seeks to facilitate easier access for those crossing into Bethlehem through the security barrier.

Christian exodus

Christmas as well as Easter are times when the world media spotlight focuses on Palestinian Christians, and in recent years the storyline has consistently been on their flight abroad. Various reports seek to blame Israel for the departure of thousands of Christians from the PA-controlled West Bank and Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip, ignoring the fact that Israel is the only nation in the entire region where the Christian population is growing. Christians now comprise less than two percent of the population of the Palestinian areas, compared to ten times that ratio before the 1948 War of Independence.

 The same holds true across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, as indigenous Christians are being driven out of Muslim-dominated lands. The Lebanese scholar Habib C. Malik writes that Christians in the Levant are in a “terminal regional decline.” And the leading cause has nothing to do with Israel – rather, it is intimidation by Muslims.

Bethlehem has witnessed many forms of intimidation against Christians over recent decades. Perhaps the best-remembered is the IDF standoff with dozens of armed Palestinian terrorists who had taken refuge in the Church of the Nativity in 2002 – looting and desecrating this important holy site while holding numerous Christian clergymen hostage for a month.

Christians in Bethlehem have been cursed and spat upon by Muslims. They have been beaten for eating in restaurants in violation of Ramadan, the Muslim month of day-time fasting. Islamic sharia law has been imposed in the curriculum for Christian children in public schools. Christian women have shunned modern Western garb to avoid being attacked for immodesty. Christian men have grown beards so they will be mistaken for Muslims.

There is widespread bias against Christians in the Palestinian Authority’s civil service hiring and promotion, as well as in the private sector. Church lands have been expropriated and mosques erected on them. Christians have been forced to sell historic family lands to Muslims at ridiculously low prices. Palestinian Authority officials have been exposed for taking bribes to record forged land deeds naming Muslims as property owners.

 Particularly infuriating has been imposed marriages of Christian women to Muslim men. In addition, Christian women have been raped and murdered with nothing being done to arrest or punish the Muslim perpetrators.

 The list goes on. Most cases of anti-Christian violence have gone unreported. So is anyone surprised why thousands of Palestinian Christians emigrate to any nation where they can obtain a visa?

Still, conditions have been improving for Palestinian Christians in recent years, as seen with this year’s festive Christmas celebrations. The PA’s American trained and equipped security forces have restored a sense of law-and-order to most West Bank cities, benefitting Christians and Muslims alike. Improved coordination and cooperation between the PA security forces and the IDF Central Command has also reduced friction.

PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas believe that terrorism will not serve their interests now. They will not fight terrorism, but neither do they encourage it. The Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that they do not want to trigger another intifada, at least not at this juncture.

The PA wants to move ahead in other spheres, such as improving its economy. It also wants to increase international pressure on Israel, which is harder to mobilize in an atmosphere of terror.

 Nonetheless, when dozens of Christians are murdered in Egypt, Iraq, or Pakistan, we should understand that, regrettably, this has been the norm rather than the exception throughout most of the Arab/Muslim world, including in the Palestinian areas as well. A year or two of economic revival, more noticeable during Christmas, cannot and should not be misunderstood as a new beginning until it becomes a lasting pattern. Patience is essential.

Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and university lecturer affiliated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs who has authored several monographs on the persecution of Christian and other religious minorities in the Palestinian territories.


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