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

By Munther Isaac 03-14-2013
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 (see U.N. Resolution 194).

I know that the president is planning to visit the Church of the Nativity to pay homage to the child of Bethlehem. If so, then I would like to remind him of a story that person once told: the story of the Good Samaritan. It is a story about mercy. It is also a story about apathy. The two men who did not do mercy were religious. They were so occupied, it seems, with the religious task ahead, that they neglected to see the suffering of the man they passed by. I mention this story because we in Bethlehem are tired of people visiting our town as a "religious duty" without paying attention to the plight and suffering of the people of Bethlehem. This is why we were so moved by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem in 2009. Would the president do the same?

This is why I suggest, President Obama, since your time in Palestine/Israel is so precious, that you visit other urgent places in Bethlehem. If this is about a religious duty, then there is nothing more religious than speaking the truth and working for justice and reconciliation. May I therefore suggest that, instead of visiting the Church of the Nativity, you go to the town of Beit Jala and visit the area of Cremisan. There you will hear from Palestinian Christians how they are fighting to keep their land from being confiscated, and maybe you can join them in their weekly prayer. You will be giving, after all, homage to the child of Bethlehem, when you show compassion, and work for peace and justice. After all, it is Jesus who said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Munther Isaac is the Vice Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Center for Mission Studies, and director of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference.

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

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