“O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” This line and others from favorite Christmas carols invite “all ye faithful” to Bethlehem. Most of us can easily travel to Bethlehem with our thoughts and imaginations while a few of us will actually visit contemporary Bethlehem. If you are among the people who visit today's Bethlehem, what will you see, hear or feel?
As you come near Rachel's Tomb at the entrance to the city, you will be stopped by a checkpoint, a military watchtower, and an 8-meter high wall. The checkpoint is guarded by Israeli soldiers whose job is to welcome internationals to Bethlehem while at the same time keeping Israelis from entering the city or Palestinians from leaving it. If you ask an Israeli soldier why his or her government forbids Israelis from going to Bethlehem and Palestinians from going to Jerusalem, he or she will point to security as the main reason. Israeli security is generally used as the justification for multiple injustices against the Muslim and Christian population of Bethlehem. If Jesus were to be born in Bethlehem today, he would have difficulty crossing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for the same security reasons. Moreover, because of the current political turmoil in Egypt, Mary and Joseph may have to flee to Canada instead.
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.
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.
There are about 70 thousand Palestinians living in the larger Bethlehem area that includes the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Thirty thousand of the inhabitants of Bethlehem consider themselves Palestinian Christians. The rest are Muslims. While activist Christians join Muslims in demonstrating against the occupation, the building of settlements and against the construction of the wall of segregation, they don't discontinue celebrating the birth of their Savior. At Christmas, the Bethlehem municipality stretches its budget to decorate all the streets of the city, especially the streets leading to Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity and the street that leads to the Shepherds' Fields. Hotels, shops, restaurants, and homes are also decked with lights and colors. On Christmas Eve, choirs from around the world join with local choirs to sing both new and familiar Christmas songs. Inside the Church of the Nativity, Palestinian and international dignitaries come and give homage to Christ the King as they pray, watch, or participate in the Midnight Christ-Mass. The faithful in Bethlehem continue to draw courage from the fact that the Savior of the world chose their town to be the place for the great miracle of incarnation.
If one mingles with the Christians of Bethlehem and asks them about their wish this Christmas, the unanimous answer will be, “We want peace!” For the declining Christian communities in Bethlehem and the West Bank, no gift is greater than the gift of peace. They know well that without a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, their children and grandchildren will not continue to live on in Bethlehem.
“O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” Don’t come just as a casual tourist, but whether you come to Bethlehem via your imagination or come in person, draw near to the city with a prayer on your heart to the Prince of Peace to restore His peace upon His birthplace, the city of Bethlehem.
Rev. Alex Awad is the director of the Shepherd Society, a local ministry of Bethlehem Bible College, serving marginalized families in the West Bank.