Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

For Christians in Bethlehem, Two Somber Commemorations

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

For Christians in Bethlehem, Two Somber Commemorations

Article excerpt

Father George Abu Khazen, a Palestinian Franciscan, is the Catholic parish priest for the town of Bethlehem. You reach his offices by climbing a stairway from the cloister in front of the Church of St. Catherine, which adjoins the Nativity.

"You live in Bethlehem, so you know what Christmas means to the Christians in Bethlehem," he said to me, as we sat in his office sipping coffee from the customary small cups. "We still celebrate the feast religiously, but we cannot celebrate it as a social or civil occasion. We have too many young people in prison."

"How many?" I asked.

"I think about 60," he said. "Even Abu Elias, our porter here, has had all three of his sons in prison. One is still there."

"Have many of the young men left to go abroad?" I asked.

"Ninety young people left in 1988. Almost the same number this year. This is a serious loss to our parish of 4,000 People."

I asked about other problems.

"In my parish," he said, "Mothers are having miscarriages."

"Because of tear gas?" I ventured.

"Yes, of course. Two families left their own homes to go to quieter places in order to have their babies. Parents who wish to have another child hesitate to do so now."

The telephone rang repeatedly. As he spoke to one caller in Arabic, another in Italian, and still another in French, I pondered the particular irony of the loss of unborn babies in Bethlehem.

"Do the people have enough to eat?" I asked.

"Not all the people have enough to eat," he said, his tone conveying his anxiety. "If they have enough to eat they can't buy clothes. Then whoever sells clothes suffers. Many families have no fruit, no vegetables and no meat. Last year, you know, vegetables and fruit were plentiful and cheap. This year, we have to help these families."

"Have any social changes taken place in the parish during the uprising?"

"Sure, sure," he laughed a little nervously. "Yes, Bethlehem is a conservative society, very conservative. It's the clan, you know, the families, that were the authority. The relationship was subordination, subordination of the family to the father, and of the father to the head of the clan. It was something positive, something negative. Many family problems could be solved by the clan.

"But now," he continued, "these structures are weakened because the young people have another way of thinking. They accuse their parents of doing nothing to end the 23 years of military occupation. They claim that the younger generation is doing something. This new attitude will have repercussions in the families, the clans, the schools, the church, in everything."

"Bethlehem seems quieter, the army appears to have greater control," I suggested rather tentatively. "I don't hear so much shooting from my room in the university."

"It's not quiet," he replied almost heatedly. "Sure, the troops are everywhere on the roof tops and they don't mention the disturbances in the papers. They wish to keep Manger Road free for the pilgrims. But it is not so quiet elsewhere. Daily, we have something."

As I walked from the Nativity across Manger Square, I met a former student from the university. She said she was now married to a lecturer at the Gaza University who had been arrested two days earlier. Then, in Star Street, just before I climbed the steps past the Suq, an Israeli jeep swerved around a corner. …

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