Christmas in the Prison that is Bethlehem
Bethlehem is behind a wall, a twenty-seven foot wall. Over the past several years, Israel has been constructing a wall throughout the Palestinian lands on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The wall is designed to ensure the safety of Jerusalem as well as the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory controlled by Israeli armed forces. In addition, the wall seems clearly calculated to drive Palestinians, including many Christians, out of the region. If so, it is succeeding.
The wall runs particularly close to Bethlehem and its outlying villages, where it cuts through areas of dense Palestinian housing and commerce, effectively reducing or eliminating trade, and isolating thousands of people from government services and schools. To cite just one example, following recent new construction of the wall and its checkpoints, Palestinian Christian grocery store owner Amjad Awwat must spend 45 minutes getting from his home on one side of the street to his store on the other. Amjad’s “commute” used to take less than 60 seconds.
Special permits are required to move among different parts of Bethlehem and between Bethlehem and surrounding areas. Even tourists visiting Bethlehem are not permitted to stay there overnight but must return to Israeli areas for lodging. The social and economic impact of the wall is, in a word, devastating.
On December 11th in his annual pre-Christmas address, mayor Victor Batarseh said that Bethlehem is “living one of its history’s darkest chapters” and is like “a big prison”. The Latin-rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, has said exactly the same thing. On Bethlehem’s behalf, Mayor Batarseh called upon the world’s Christians to “contribute in breaking this oppressive siege imposed upon it, through your visits, through pilgrimage to its holy sites.”
But it won’t be easy to get in and out. Before the Palestinian uprising in 2000, about 90,000 pilgrims visited Bethlehem each month. After the construction of the wall was completed last year, only 2,500 pilgrims came during the 2005 Christmas season. According to Baterseh, 65% of residents are now unemployed, mostly because of the wall, “which simply means that 65 per cent of the people of Bethlehem live under the poverty line.”
When you read the gospel of the Nativity this Christmas, pray for Bethlehem.
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