"It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
When we hear about Bethlehem this Christmas season, what do we imagine? A town far away and frozen in time? Or security walls, checkpoints, and a place that has been home to tens of thousands of Christians - descendents of the early church? In a recent nationwide survey, carried out by top U.S. political pollsters Zogby International, it was found that only 15% of Americans realize that Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.
The fact is that until recently, Bethlehem has been an established town with a thriving indigenous Christian population (read: not Western converts but "original" Christians). But these people, who have been "living stones" to the life and witness of Jesus, are now on the verge of extinction. Much of this is due to the evolving political and social nightmare that makes emigration (when possible) nearly irresistible. And let's not forget the "security" wall that encloses and nearly chokes the city.
Consider these facts:
- Bethlehem's Christian population has dwindled from more than 85% in 1948 to 12% of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.
- While the Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the most recent spike in the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9%) to blame it on Islamic politics.
- And while four out of ten Americans believe that the wall exists for Israel's security, more than nine out of ten Bethlehemites believe it is part of a plan by Israel to confiscate Palestinian land.
- Only 50,000 Christians remain in the Palestinian territories and within a few years there may be no Christians left in the Holy Land. (see more statistics)
At a recent conference for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Washington, D.C., leaders of various Palestinian churches banded together to plead to their American brothers and sisters to help support them. It was likened to a Mother (church) asking her children for aide and support.
Will we in the West only see Bethlehem as a quaint town on holiday cards and nativity scenes? Or will we open our eyes to the present realities that affect our real, though distant, relatives?
Deanna Murshed is director of integrated marketing for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. For more information about Palestinian churches and how you can help, visit:
- Holy LandTrust
- Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation
- Open Bethlehem
- Bethlehem Bible College
- Middle EastFellowship
- Or, download Sojourners' discussion guide on the Middle East