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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Christmas in Bethlehem


While Christians in the United States are trying to keep Christ in Christmas, Christians in Bethlehem are trying to keep Christians in the land of Christ’s birth. This was a common concern expressed by the many Palestinian Christians I spoke with in the past few weeks.

Yes, Palestinian Christians are concerned about providing children the joy of waking up to gifts on Christmas morning, and yes, they will attend Mass as a family to commemorate the real meaning of keeping Christ in Christmas. But their long-term overriding worry is the shrinking numbers of Christians in Bethlehem.

Now a distinct minority, Palestinian Christians feel vulnerable and open to exploitation. While they insist that any discussion of their situation under occupation must include Muslims, they admit of tensions between Christians and Muslims. “We cannot deny problems. They do exist, but we are all trying to survive.”

Most of the tensions have to do with cultural/religious matters such as intermarriage. At the same time, many Muslims I talked with cited the important contributions of Christians to Palestinian society. They are equally disturbed by the exodus of Christians from Palestine. Muslim students at St. Joseph’s School, Bethlehem, regret that they aren’t allowed to see how Christians in Bethlehem celebrate Christ’s birth. Most of them live in villages outside Bethlehem and can go back and forth during the school year, but on Christmas the Israelis close the roads.

Another common concern of Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, is how to help children not accept the abnormal as normal. Susan Atallah, a teacher at St. Joseph’s High School, explains, “People adjust and get used to the situation where there are restrictions on movement, curfews, closures, checkpoints. Palestinians get ‘used to it.’ This passive acceptance allows Israelis to move to another level of oppression. Children grow up thinking this is the way it has to be.”

I asked, “What changes them?” Her answer is that they think that way until they go abroad or outside the Occupied Territories to see how others live, how they move freely, and don’t have to look at the point of a gun. She worries that children seldom get opportunities that her generation, now in their 30s, had. They went on picnics to Lake Genesareth, the sandy shores of the Mediterranean or the Dead Sea.

Since then, the intensive measures of occupation have reached a point where every Palestinian I met talks about being in a prison. Palestinians under 10 have never been to Jerusalem. They might know the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but never enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, even though Bethlehem and Jerusalem are just six miles apart. I was told of a 17-year old boy on a trip to Haifa, organized with permits obtained by a parish priest in Bethlehem, who had never seen the Mediterranean. At the sight of it, he danced up and down in the aisle of the bus shouting, “Bahar! Bahar! The sea! The sea!” Tears came to the eyes of the adult chaperons that a boy his age had never seen the sea.

Susan Atallah found a creative way to show students the “abnormal should not be accepted as normal.” During the siege of Bethlehem in 2002, her students exhibited emotional and psychological turmoil. She turned her English language classes into diary writing, using the diaries for student discussion. She said, “Our goal was to help the students become fluent in reading, writing and speaking English, but we used diaries to help them deal with their frustrations, fears, depression and loss of hope.”

By examining the reality of their lives, students gain awareness that the abnormal is just that: abnormal. The classroom diaries led to a book, The Wall Can Not Stop Our Stories. The book led to a theatrical presentation, “Our Diaries Through the Wall,” that has won wide acclaim at home and on a road trip to the International Theatre Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August 2005. The play received rave reviews in the Edinburgh Metro and The Scotsman. The latter praised it as a “masterfully rounded portrayal of day-to-day living in Bethlehem.” But more than the accolades, students have gained a sense of empowerment over their lives.

Bethlehemites point out that even though Israel will grant a limited number of permits for Christians to go to Jerusalem during Christmas week ,applying for permits is not normal. Why should they have to have a permit in the first place? Last year Susan Atallah applied through the parish priest and was refused. Only 200 out of the 600 applicants received permits.

In Bethlehem as in all of the West Bank, the separation wall is a major concern. As she described the hardship of the wall on children getting to and from school and people coming and going from work or the hospital, my 87-year-old friend Henrietta Farraj said, “The wall reminds me of Edwin Markham’s poem ‘Outwitted,’ ” which she then went on to recite with zest: “He drew a circle that shut me out -- heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win: we drew a circle that took him in.”

I asked her what it would take to draw another circle to embrace rather than exclude. She said, “It will take a lot of money, imagination and goodwill and someday it will happen.”

This writer, storyteller and lifelong humanitarian went on to say that by building the wall, Israelis are isolating their own people as well as imprisoning Palestinian Muslims and Christians. “Sooner or later we Palestinians and Jews must live together. The wall must come down,” she said.

In two months, Bethlehem will be completely surrounded by the “first circle” of exclusion. I wonder, how long until the circle of inclusion?

Sister of Mercy Miriam Ward is a retired professor of religious studies and a founding member of Pax Christi Burlington, Vt., and of the Burlington-Bethlehem Sister City Program. She sends this report from Bethlehem.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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