Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Glimmer of Hope: Christmas in Bethlehem

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Glimmer of Hope: Christmas in Bethlehem

Article excerpt

A Glimmer of Hope: Christmas in Bethlehem

Dr. Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

Amid the stormy clouds and cold wintry showers, a magnificent rainbow covered the sky over Bethlehem just as the Latin Patriarch was about to make his early afternoon arrival at Manger Square in the traditional Christmas Eve procession. The scene marked the spirit of Bethlehem's residents who braved the elements to try to make something of this somber occasion. "These are God's tears," noted one of the few American visitors. "God shares in the suffering of his people."

"But look at the rainbow," remarked an older Palestinian resident, pointing to the sky. "God hasn't deserted us. We live in hope."

BETHLEHEM 2000: CANCELED

Christmas 2000 was to have been Bethlehem's coming-out party. Years of planning, investment and hard work had anticipated the ultimate Christmas celebration--with visiting choirs, overbooked hotels, and souvenir shops bustling with business. Instead, the streets of Bethlehem were destined to be still and silent once again with the inevitable cancellation of official ceremonies.

The news media were quick to jump on the ghost town phenomenon. "O Little Town, How Still It Lies: Bethlehem Blues," headlined the Christian Science Monitor. Reporters hustled to interview the "only American in Bethlehem."

Among all the hotels in Bethlehem, only the Star Hotel remained open for guests. The new Millennium Hotel housed families whose homes had been shelled; The Bethlehem Inn near Rachel's tomb had been requisitioned for Israeli troops; and The Paradise Hotel was still nursing its wounds from Israeli shelling. "I haven't had a customer in three months," lamented souvenir shopkeeper Majdi Atar Amer.

It wasn't only the tourist business that was hurting. The Israeli siege of Bethlehem had closed off all economic exchange: industry has been shut down, and Bethlehem workers have been prevented from going to their employment in Jerusalem, with a cost to the local economy of $2 million each week.

The world must be made aware of the poverty being visited on the Palestinian community, noted Church officials. Father Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Delegate for the Vatican in the Holy Land, told an American church leader delegation that the economic battle has become very serious. Unemployment is rampant, he said, and "five people depend on each salary" The destruction of crops means that "starvation will begin soon," he added. So the Christmas rains only added to the dampened spirits in Bethlehem.

A CHRISTMAS RESPITE

The sun was out for a few days prior to Christmas, and people returned to the streets. "It is the first time in months, believe me," said Rana Khoury. "The streets have been deserted."

The convergence of Ramadan and the Christmas season provided at least a little lift in spirits. "But watch closely," remarked another businessman. "People are looking, but they have no money to buy."

After more than a month of nightly shelling, the guns turned silent for a few days.

Perhaps it was a matter of respect for the religious atmosphere. The celebration of Hanukkah in Israel added to the holiness of the season. Another factor may have been the presence of the few brave foreigners who were persistent in making their way past checkpoints and closed entryways. The Christian Peacemaker Team--known for their work in Hebron over the years--also moved a contingent into the Beit Jala area for a month-long stay. They chose a multi-family dwelling where two CPTers would have regular interaction with residents. "We maintained very good relationships with these families and our other neighbors," Jamey Bouwmeester noted. "We were welcomed warmly. From the beginning locals said that they felt we were in solidarity with them just by living there, where we might be harmed."

In fact, the CPT house was not exempt from bombing. During the first several nights shelling rocked the house, and CPTers had to seek shelter in the bathroom for several hours as windows were shattered. …

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