Bethlehem is known around the world, and for centuries, as an important Christian centre. It hosts the Church of the Nativity which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, thus, making Bethlehem a sacred city for Christians. I travelled to Bethlehem from Jerusalem to spend quite a nice time in the city that ending with a tasty Palestinian lunch and a meeting with an ex-mayor of the city who is a Christian Palestinian woman.
City: Bethlehem, Palestine
I was in Israel and Palestine for a week in April 2018 with the Union of Jewish Students who held an inter-faith trip around the holy land to discover the Jewish, Muslim and Christian components of this region and to engage with the ongoing political and humanitarian situation with the Israeli-Arab conflict. But on this blog post, I am not talking about any conflicts (even though it’s hard not to…) but I will try to talk more about Jesus, Christians in Palestine and the Church of the Nativity, who have existed long before the existing conflict takes over!
We were travelling on a coach the whole time during this trip and we were based in Jerusalem most of the time. Naturally, the trip to Bethlehem started in Jerusalem. The drive to Bethlehem does not take much time as the two cities are only 10km apart. Nonetheless, I was surprised to see how Jerusalem and Bethlehem are almost connected as one city because Jerusalem grows dramatically and so quickly.
I thought I was still in Jerusalem until I saw a wall. This is the wall of shame, or the wall of security, or whatever you may call it. It separates Israeli territories with Palestinian territories. It is not shocking to see the wall stand there because I am aware of it before the trip but I was still surprised because it feels useless as our coach just crossed it without any checks at the checkpoint. It is also interesting to enter a new territory. I was in a Palestinian city in Palestine but not at any city… in Bethlehem which is the city of the Nativity. I was very excited to be there.
Once in Bethlehem, it was not a long drive until the parking spot located in a very interesting mall that seems to be mostly popular because of a KFC restaurant there. From the KFC mall, I walked to the Church of the Nativity but I was surprised to see how simple it was from outside. I was expecting a church in the same style that we see in the Vatican or Italy but it was just simple! Nonetheless, I still loved it!
Once I walked through a small entrance known as “Door of Humility”, I was greeted by a feeling of “I have made it!”. I was in the birthplace of Jesus! It was insane! I am not Christian but I was still excited to be there and discover a historic site with an impact that lasts for 2018 years now.
The church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed under Palestine and it includes Latin, Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian convents and churches all making up this sacred site.
It was very interesting moving between different churches with each having their own rituals and traditions that I was lucky to witness through masses taking place that day. The church is part of a Christian pilgrimage route with many pilgrims coming from all over the world to trace where Christianity had began.
After the visit of the Church of the Nativity, it was about time to have some lunch. We headed to the far end of Bethlehem to Beit Sahour, a village that is at the same time part of Zone A and Zone C. The latter being an area that Israel fully controls even though it is on the Palestinian Territories. Zone B is an area of joint control between Israel and the Palestinian Authority while Zone A is an area fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The place were we ate was also host of a brewery producing Made in Palestine beers called Shepherds. But we were not there for the beers, once lunch was served, there was a silence around the table as everybody went on eating.
I can only qualify this lunch as holy as Bethlehem because it was just amazing! Palestinian food is really good and I am glad I tasted it right there!
After lunch, the UJS prepared a meeting with Vera Baboun, who was a mayor of Bethlehem until recently in 2017. She is also one of the few women in politics in Palestine. She told us her life story living under the Israeli oppression and how she made it to the post of mayor. One of the tragic moments of her life was when her husband Johnny was taken to jail for few years which dramatically deteriorated his health and finally passed away. She is such an inspiration as she excelled in her career while her husband was in jail and while taking care of 5 children. Her struggles as mayor of Bethlehem include the expansions of Israeli settlements and the installation of checkpoints.
Vera is also a proud Palestinian Christian. She definitely states that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians in Palestine as they live the same struggles. Even though she denounces the oppression of the Israeli state, she still states that she studied in an Israeli university as she was treated like any other student once at school.
Palestinian Christians in the holy land come from different churches denominations. The Maronite Church, the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholic,… these are just some of the few churches representing Palestinian Christians. When walking in Bethlehem it was also quite noticeable to see how diverse churches and Christian schools are.
Even though Christian life is quite active in Bethlehem, the actual number of Palestinian Christians is quite minor. They are only making up 6-7% of the Palestinian population. Many have emigrated to other countries and one of the biggest Palestinian Christian community can be found in Chile.
The Church of the Nativity is also in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger due to the occupation of the West Bank by Israel which limits the restoration plans. In 2002, the church experienced a 39 days siege during the Operation Defensive Shield by the Israeli Armed Forces. Right now, all Palestinians regardless of their religion are in a struggle against a brutal Israeli regime and sometimes even under oppression from their own Palestinian leaders. However, more than ever, Palestinian Christians are also at risk as their numbers are decreasing putting in danger a vital component of Christian life, Bethlehem, the city of the Nativity.