Magazine article Anglican Journal

Violence Still Threatens Bethlehem, 2,000 Years After

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Violence Still Threatens Bethlehem, 2,000 Years After

Article excerpt

Bethlehem, Palestine

FEBRUARY 6, 1998: The city of Bethlehem is quiet tonight. There are rumours of war in the area. Armed soldiers hover around the checkpoint, ever alert. Few people walk the dark streets. In my mind I imagine that somewhere a woman screams giving birth, like she screamed the night the soldiers raped her, just as they have raped her land and occupied her people. I already know about the occupation. The stories of violence I will hear over and over again on my visit.

I am finally in my hotel in the centre of Bethlehem. The security check at the Tel Aviv airport was uncomfortable. Why are you here? I am a tourist. Are you traveling alone? Yes. Are you carrying any weapons? No. Any gifts for anyone? No. Did anyone ask you to bring in anything? No. Who do you know? Nobody. What will you be visiting? The holy places. Will you be visiting any local people in their homes? No. Where are you staying? The Bethlehem Grand Hotel. Why Bethlehem? That is where the manger is.

February 7: I walked easily from my hotel to Manger Square. I hadn't really believed Khalid, the proprietor, when he said just to hang a left at the bottom of the street and work my way down the cobbled streets. But there it was. After I pushed through the local cars honking to get around the taxis and the tour buses, I faced an empty square with a small door in the wall ahead. The entrance to one of the holiest of places.

I stooped to enter. Inside the huge chamber, crowds of tourists milled around their tour guides. They clutched their cameras, ready for that significant shot and fingered their tour I.D. cards as if to legitimize their presence there.

Alone and apart, I stood quietly, savouring the moment. I sidled up to the tourists, catching now and then a word from the female guide. She pointed out a mosaic floor that had been uncovered by archeologists. It was centuries old and looked like a Persian carpet but it was made of coloured stones. As the crowd moved away I took a picture.

One after one the guide pointed out the silver and gold artifacts adorning the altar, explaining their history. Then the group moved towards the place. The guide's voice dropped to an audible whisper. She explained how this site of Jesus' birth was considered the most accurate. The local people remembered, she said, and the word was passed on by mouth through the centuries. This is as close as it gets, she stated.

Bending, I entered the narrow entrance to the grotto and climbed carefully down the uneven steps, worn by the feet of thousands of pilgrims through the centuries, before me. Suddenly I was alone in front of the manger. The hum of the retreating group mingled with the quiet steps of the incoming group. I stood reverently for a moment then knelt to touch the very spot where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. Tears welled up. My chest felt tight. I bowed my head in a silent prayer.

Here, where there was no room at the inn, there was always room in a cave or a stable. Stables were important places. They provided shelter for the beasts of burden. They were warm, cozy places, appropriate places for a Saviour to be born.

Later I had lunch outside, across from the square. The smell of gas from the tour buses filled my nostrils and the persistent honking of horns filled my ears. Children chattered and ran around playfully. Local women passed carrying their grocery bags of pita bread, Jaffa oranges, eggplant and tomatoes. …

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