BELITTLED TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
The photograph of Bethlehem hanging in my office was taken by a French photographer in 1884. It depicts hundreds of pilgrims flocking to the Church of the Nativity at Christmas. The quaint little town of ancient churches and two story Ottoman homes built on Byzantine and Roman foundations is nestled on a gently sloping Palestinian hillside. The entranceway to Bethlehem is broad and inviting. I half expected to see something like this when I visited Bethlehem myself. My antique photograph offered me no point of reference.
Today there are few pilgrims flocking to Bethlehem. The ancient buildings, pock marked with bullet holes, are camouflaged by steel doors and metal shutters. The gentle rolling countryside has been violently cleaved to construct illegal housing settlements. A beautiful olive orchard that the Greek Church recently sold to the Israeli government is slated for settlement expansion. The open entranceway is now a security terminal that’s part of a 25 foot high concrete segregation wall that zigzags around and through the town. The ‘little town of Bethlehem’ is a village under siege.
When I was in Bethlehem, Israeli troops had just invaded the city in search of a young Palestinian. Military vehicles surrounded a building near the girls' school. Residents were forced from their homes and a crowd of elders, women and children gathered in As-Saf Street as Israeli jeeps took up position around the suspect’s house. The soldiers throw tear gas grenades to disperse the crowd; several bystanders were injured and were treated by Palestinian medical services.
Explosions came from inside the suspects’ home. The building remained standing. A Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer arrived and began knocking down the house. From the roof where I was standing a fire could be seen burning in another part of the neighborhood. Soldiers used a 'human shield' to enter the home. The Palestinian man was forced to enter the building ahead of the soldiers. A second young Palestinian was ordered to carry out any furniture that had not already been totally destroyed. Another Palestinian youth was detained by the Israeli forces after part of his house was also blown up.
Gunfire erupted between some locals and the Israeli soldiers and at least six civilians were shot. One teenage boy died. Two other teenagers were seriously injured. One 13 year old was shot in the head and survived. A seven year old boy was critically injured. Shots were heard in the area throughout the day. A student at Bethlehem University told me this was a regular occurrence.
The next day everything seemed normal as I walked the streets and took photographs in the marketplace. A group of school children came by escorted by their teacher as they held on to each other’s hands. Their faces reminded me of the children of my parish who were preparing for their annual Christmas Pageant. The innocence reflected in their faces cried out that the children of Bethlehem have a right to life too.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the Jewish king wanted him dead. The king’s army invaded the countryside beating women and killing innocent children. To maintain power and control, the Jewish king intimidated, harassed, terrorized and oppressed the people. Joseph took his wife Mary and their newborn son and joined a stream of refugees fleeing Bethlehem in the face of first century state sponsored terrorism. In exile, in time, Joseph learned that the king was dead, the terror had ended and it was safe to return to Palestine. He took his family and went home; the rest is the history of our salvation and liberation.
This Christmas, as we sing our carols and watch our pageants, celebrate our Liturgy and enjoy our feast, I’ll remember the children I saw in Bethlehem. Today, in that Little Town a new generation of ‘Holy Innocents’ is belittled by indignity, exiled from their homes and made refugees from their own land as they anxiously await news of the death of the oppressor. As we meet the incarnate God in the celebration of His birthday lets also remember His birthplace and the people struggling there for ‘peace on earth’.