Today Christmas lights illuminate the town of Christ's birth, while crowds mill about holiday markets and purchase gifts for families and friends. Music concerts and a festive Christmas tree lighting are among events designed to help visitors enjoy the spirit of Christmas in Bethlehem.
This year, tourism is on the rise in the city of Christ's birth, with more than 1.1 million Christian tourists making their way to the Holy Land each year. For many of these visitors, the sole purpose of their visit is one of faith, and one of their top destinations is Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity affords visitors the opportunity to visit the traditional birthplace of Christ. But while the quaint, historical aspects of the “little town of Bethlehem” enchant tourists each year, the struggle of the city's modern-day occupants is an ongoing saga.
Challenges in Bethlehem
In his annual Christmas message, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, addressed challenges faced by Christians in the Holy Land, speaking of the journey toward peace in the troubled region. “The journey has begun but the process is long and tedious,” he said. “I firmly believe and even more today, that negotiation is the best way to resolve the conflict.”
Grace Al-Zoughbi, a native of Bethlehem, lives near the Church of the Nativity. “While there seems to be an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in this ancient town, the native Bethlehemites can be found struggling,” she says. “As the Christians of the town of David celebrate the birth of their Savior this year they are surrounded by a huge wall of cement.”
But she says the unique challenges faced by Christians on the West Bank haven't hindered the celebration of Christmas in the town. Grace has resided near the Church of the Nativity for most of her life, and this year, she says, hasn't been any different. “Christmas carols were beautifully lifted from behind the wall,” she says.
'Tourists, But Not Profits'
Economic struggles continue to be widespread in Bethlehem, in spite of the increase in tourism. For Nabil Giacaman, who operates a small gift shop near the Church of the Nativity, the flow of tourists provides an opportunity to make a living. But Giacaman, who watches around 200 tourist buses a day shuttle visitors to and from the Church of the Nativity, is concerned that not enough are stopping. "My total sales the other day were $4.13," he recently told the Los Angeles Times. "My shop is in the middle of it all, but it gets worse every year. We have tourists, but not profits."
For many visitors, the adventurous “Nativity Trail” offers a chance to experience the journey of Mary and Joseph, starting in the town of Nazareth and winding toward Bethlehem. The trip involves crossing checkpoints, one issue that continues to imperil travel between Israel and the West Bank.
'Celebrating Behind a Wall'
Incidents of violence are not as regular as they once were, but residents of the West Bank still face challenges. Only a day ago choir members from Bethlehem Bible College were attacked while on their way home from a Christmas concert in the occupied city of Nablus, on the West Bank. The choir members were traveling by bus when the attack occurred. "A rock smashed through the window, and glass shattered everywhere inside," Saleem Anfous, a member of the choir, said. There were no serious injuries.
The eyes of the world are drawn briefly to the town of Bethlehem each year at Christmas time, as hundreds of Palestinians gather for the annual Christmas tree lighting in Bethlehem. A 50-foot Christmas tree overshadows the town.
“Bethlehem Ephrata, ‘the small town among the clans of Judah,’ lies there as beautiful as ever,” Grace Al-Zoughbi says. “Its beauty as seen from the hills and the mountains speak for a thousand words.”
Today, she struggles with the presence of the eight-meter wall surrounding her city. As a Christian, she says her faith helps her to deal with this challenge. “To celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem where it first happened is phenomenal; to celebrate the birth of Christ in our hearts is irreplaceable,” she says. “To celebrate behind a wall is difficult, to remember that Jesus’ love is higher, wider and bigger than any wall is key.”
No Room at the Inn
Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in Bethlehem, says that the nativity story might have turned out differently if it had occurred in today's Bethlehem. "If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed," he says. Father Shomali says that the struggle to find a room at the inn might have been the least of Mary and Joseph's worries. "[Christ] would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.”
For Grace Al-Zoughbi, Christmas in Bethlehem is a time to remember that “one of the core messages Jesus proclaimed is to bring down any apartheid walls bringing about reconciliation so that all can come and ‘adore Him, Christ the Lord.’”
The Reason for the Season
Al-Zoughbi says that as Christians continue to be a significant minority in the little town of Bethlehem, their “challenge is to remember amongst all difficulties that Christ is the Hope, He is the Joy, He is our salvation and as goes the Western cliché ‘He is the reason for the season.’”
As the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the region, Fouad Twal concluded his annual speech with an invitation to all Christians to visit the Holy Land. He urged believers to “come on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” adding, “Do not be afraid. Our warm welcome awaits you.”
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].
Publication date: December 23, 2011