No peace in Bethlehem this Christmas

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No peace in Bethlehem this Christmas

by Giedre Steikunaite

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Bethlehem - a hundred years ago all of this was olive groves. © Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Palestine is occupied. There is violence every day. There are no ‘Silent Nights’ in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Bethlehem today has three refugee camps, 25-per-cent unemployment, Israeli settler colonies taking more land illegally, and the Wall cutting the land and people from each other.

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White stone walls with blue doors in Bethlehem's Old City. Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

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Israeli checkpoint in the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The Aida refugee camp is near. Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

There will not be so many Christmas celebrations this year in Bethlehem out of respect for the shuhada [martyrs] – more than 120 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of October; out of respect for their families, the injured, the imprisoned, and the shuhada of the future.

In Bethlehem, Christmas comes three times: first, for the Catholics on 25 December; then, on 7 January, the Orthodox Christmas; and finally, 19 January is Christmas Day for the Armenians. There are at least 13 different Christian Churches here. And the Church of Nativity stands has a crane over it – to restore the roof, the doors, walls and mosaics.

This year’s Christmas motto in Bethlehem is the opening lines of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest Palestinian poets of modern times. He writes, ‘We have on this Earth what makes life worth living.’

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A Nativity scene from Kenya, shown at the Peace Center every Christmas. Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Peace was the theme of Bethlehem’s official Christmas message to the world. The mayor, Vera Baboun, talked about peace many times in a press conference at the beginning of December. She said ‘from the city of peace that lives no peace’. She told the world that ‘We are one injury, we are one pain; we are one tear, we are one joy.’ And because ‘Peace is absent’, we wish ‘Victory to peace’.

One year ago, Bethlehem’s Christmas motto was ‘All I want for Christmas is Peace.’ That wish still hasn’t come true. So Baboun writes, ‘People of conscience around the world, you must do something to stop this siege of Bethlehem and all the death.’

My tour guide Noor talks about the past:

Bethlehem – a village, never a city – never had stone walls in the past to protect it from attack, like Jerusalem did. But the people of Bethlehem built their houses on a hill so close together, that they could protect themselves simply by closing all the heavy wooden doors in the narrow arches at the entrance.

In the time of the Roman Empire, two canals brought water to both Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Today, two of the main roads in the city are above old Roman aqueducts. There are now no more olive groves and fields around the city. It’s now all family houses and illegal Israeli settlements.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottomans ruled. Bethlehem – a village, never a city – had seven areas: six Christian and one Muslim. Now this is the Old City of Bethlehem, but the religion ratio is not 6:1 now. Many middle-class and rich Christians moved to other countries, so there are only 15-per-cent Christians now.

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Christmas Tree in Bethlehem's Manger Square, December 2015. Right behind is the Church of Nativity, with the Peace Center to the left in the picture. Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

The Christmas tree in Manger Square faces the Church of Nativity on one side and Omar mosque on the other. In December 1999, Pope John Paul II came to Bethlehem to give his speech. They prepared for the important visit very well, but they forgot the Muslim call to prayer five times a day. So the Pope would have spoken to both Christians and Muslims at the same time. But, before the speech, the Sheikh decided to cancel the Muslim call to prayer that day out of respect for the Pope. The Pope later thanked the Sheikh for this. This year the Pope is not coming.

Manger Square was Bethlehem’s main market area until 1925 when it moved inside the Old City. They sell three kinds of products there: fruit and veg, mostly from Israeli settlements; meat, frozen and straight from the butcher; and cheap plastic imports of almost anything, as well second-hand goods.

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Sunset over Bethlehem. Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

We all believe in something. Especially here, in the land of three religions.

Manger Square is now full of tourists and religious pilgrims. There was once a building that was a police station and a prison. The Ottoman rulers tortured Palestinians they didn’t like there. When the British controlled Palestine (1922-48), British occupiers followed the tradition and imprisoned Palestinians they didn’t like. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the West Bank was under control of Jordan, so the Jordanians destroyed the building and built another one in the same place for the same purpose. When the Palestinian Authority started in 1994, they destroyed the building again; and they built the Peace Center. This has a large bookshop, a souvenir shop, meeting halls, and an exhibition room that opens before Christmas. They show many Nativity scenes from other countries, including Slovenia and Haiti.

Merry Christmas. With dignity.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL, LONGER ARTICLE: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/12/22/bethlehem-christmas/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).