church of the nativity

Renewed Hope: Pope Francis' Prayer at Bethlehem Separation Wall

Pope Francis at the Separation Wall, Photo by Mohammad Al-Azza

Pope Francis at the Separation Wall, Photo by Mohammad Al-Azza

Recently I had the privilege of attending the Mass led by Pope Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I am not a Catholic – but like many who are not, I have been inspired and touched by Pope Francis. I do not know what is it exactly that draws me to him! Is it his humility? His compassion for the poor? His social justice concern? His true ecumenical spirit ? Maybe all of the above!

Back to Manger Square. It was truly a special day. There were Palestinian Christians from all over Palestine and Israel. There was a sense of euphoria in the air. I have never seen Bethlehem like this before. I have never in my life witnessed Palestinian Christians with so much joy and jubilation. People were excited. Nuns were dancing in the streets. There were hymns, flags, smiles. For few hours we forgot we were occupied.

However, the most iconic moment during the Pope’s visit to Bethlehem did not take place in the Manger Square, nor the Nativity Church. It took place next to the Separation Wall.

Three Worlds Collide in 'Jerusalem,' the City and the Film

An IMAX camera films at the Western Wall. Photo: Nicolas Ruel, courtesy Jerusalem US LP/National Geographic Society/RNS

The old city of Jerusalem is smaller than one square mile. In 5,000 years of recorded human history there have been 180 conflicts around the city. It has been conquered 44 times, and completely destroyed twice. The story of conflict in this city is clearly not a new story.

When the producers of Jerusalem, a new movie for IMAX and other giant screen theaters, decided to approach the topic, they wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the long history.

“Jerusalem is a city in conflict,” said Taran Davies, one of the producers of Jerusalem, at a recent screening of the movie. “We wanted a new way to think about it. This [movie] is more a celebration.”

At Christmas, Rare Collaboration to Restore an Ancient Church

Michele Chabin/RNS

In Manger Square, the Palestinian Authority erected a Nativity scene and Christmas decorations. Michele Chabin/RNS

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Two weeks before Christmas, one of the most powerful storms to hit the Middle East in a century dumped several inches of snow on the hills of Bethlehem.

In addition to shuttering schools and businesses, the storm caused runoff to trickle down the walls of the Church of the Nativity, built above the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Fortunately, the water damage was relatively minor, church officials say, thanks to a rare cooperative venture already underway to repair the basilica’s roof, leaky windows and old wooden beams, some 1,500 years old.

“There were still leaks, but thanks to the scaffolding that was erected for the restoration work, the damage was controlled,” said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church.

In what some are calling the biggest miracle in Bethlehem since the birth of Jesus, the three churches that share responsibility for the Nativity church put aside centuries of tense relations this past year to ensure the job gets done.

Dear President Obama: Do Not Visit Bethlehem’s Nativity Church

Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com

Obama's campaign slogan appears on the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem. ryanrodrickbeiler.com

President Barack Obama is planning to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity as part of his visit to Palestine/Israel. The Church of the Nativity, of course, is not the only thing to see in Bethlehem. I suggest that as the president enters the town, from Jerusalem I presume, that he takes a look to his right, and he will see the separation wall. It is hard to miss. It is that ugly concrete structure that gives you the impression that you are inside a big prison. I am sure the president will notice how the wall is killing life in Bethlehem, cutting deep into our neighborhoods.

As he continues on his way through the main street, I suggest he pays attention to his right, to the Azza Refugee Camp. I hope it reminds him of the misery of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees today, who are still waiting in hope for a just resolution to their suffering.

Christians Fighting Over Holy Places (Physically and Figuratively)

The disturbing footage of the monks fighting in Bethlehem’s Nativity Church has been seen around the world. This is not the first time such a fight has erupted. The natural reaction any Christians should have upon seeing this footage is shame. It is difficult to even describe in words what one feels when he sees Christian clerics involved in such violence and rage!

This incident reflects at least two major deficiencies within the Palestinian Christian community. The first is the status of the church and how it is still controlled by foreign powers. Palestine and the "holy sites" have always attracted Christians who want to control these places. Everyone wants a share of the place. This is the story of the church in Palestine in a nutshell. Though we have called this place home for centuries, we have never in reality governed ourselves, as a people or as a church. Wars have emerged over control of the sites, from the crusaders, through the Crimean War,  to our modern era, where a fragile "status quo" from the days of the Ottoman Empire governs the relationship between the different church families and who controls what in the holy sites.

O Come Ye, O Come Ye to Bethlehem

Palestinian Christians hold mass near Bethlehem to protest construction of Israe

Palestinian Christians hold mass near Bethlehem to protest construction of Israeli separation barrier (ryanrodrickbeiler.com)

What one quickly learns when visiting Bethlehem is that the political climate today is quite similar to the one that was prevailing during the time of Jesus. One exception is that the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem today are being occupied by those who consider themselves the offspring or cultural descendants of Jews who were under the yoke of Roman occupation in the first century.  Other reminders of the political similarities are the weekly demonstrations on the outskirts of Bethlehem by Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals to nonviolently protest the confiscation of Palestinian land to build new Jewish settlements. Unarmed and nonviolent demonstrators face heavily equipped Israeli troops who protect those who steal Palestinian lands in the West Bank and construct segregated settlements on them.  This reminds us of the brutality of the Roman occupation forces against Jewish freedom fighters.

But Bethlehem today is not all consumed with politics. Many of the folks in Bethlehem could not care less about politics. Repeated disappointments with the host of so-called peace brokers and failed peace plans have caused many Bethlehemites to abandon politics. They just want a decent standard of living to carry on with life in security with their children and grandchildren. These are the people who in spite of the same closures and repression by the forces of occupation, choose to be peaceful. They hope that freedom will come but they don't know when or how it will come. Like the folks who lived when Jesus was born, they continue to wait quietly for political liberation.

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