24 December 2005

The silent stars go by

By Marguerite Finn

O Little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
the silent stars go by.

Tomorrow we gladly sing, knowing full well that Bethlehem today is a very turbulent place. Philip Brooks' poem depicts the ancient city of David as it was 2000 years ago, on the night Jesus was born.

For centuries, Bethlehem has been the destination of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. Deep below the Church of the Nativity is a small cavern with a manger cut into the rock wall. St Helena claimed this is the place where Jesus was born, 10 kilometres from the hill where later He died. In between, Jesus walked the length of the land preaching peace.

This Christmas, Bethlehem is enclosed by an 8-metre high concrete wall, erected by Israel on Palestinian land. Cutting right through the city, it destroys homes, businesses and lives. Bethlehem has lost most of its farmland and olive groves. The number of tourists has dropped from 92,000 in 2000 to a mere 7,249 in 2004. Restaurants, shops and commercial outlets have closed. In the last five years 9.3 percent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated.

Pilgrims entering or leaving Bethlehem must line up to be checked individually. Even the Dean of the Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem was forced to leave his car and walk some forty yards through a culvert hidden from the road, to emerge, shaken, on to the concrete beyond the checkpoint. Armed guards monitor everyone entering the Church of the Nativity through the side doors - built low to prevent horsemen invading the church. The main doors are barred and bolted as a security measure. The ancient walls are pockmarked with bullet holes where Israeli soldiers once laid siege to the church, sanctuary for some alleged terrorists.

But who is terrorising whom?

Mary, the mother of Jesus, found refuge in a stable where her Son was born. Centuries later, Palestinian women, pregnant, terrified and desperate to reach the safety of a hospital to give birth to their children, endure hours of degrading treatments at Israeli checkpoints. Many die from lack of proper medical care. The Israeli army issued "birthing kits" to soldiers controlling the checkpoints. These kits are to help Palestinian women who "choose" to give birth while being held up at checkpoints. A growing number of Palestinian infants carry the name Hajez (Arabic for 'checkpoint') as a bitter reminder of their birthplace.

Canon Aves, the late priest of St Giles-on-the-Hill in Norwich, spent the last three months of his life working with others in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. They hoped their presence would deter Israeli harassment of West Bank people. His diary describes how, one cold November night, he saw young Israeli conscripts drinking coffee at the checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They had detained 40 young Bethlehem men, their faces against a wall, hands held high. They were kept there all night for "illegally" entering Jerusalem looking for work. Bethlehem has 70 percent unemployment due to the partition wall, the roadblocks and the dearth of tourists.

These harsh Israeli security measures stem from their understandable worries over suicide bombers. However, in 1948, Israel was founded in part on expulsion of former residents. More than 750,000 Christians and Muslims were forced from their homes to live in refugee camps. Many are still there, 50 years on, just a 40-minute drive away from land they once owned. Israel proclaims the 'right of return' and citizenship to all Jews worldwide but denies this to expelled Palestinians, despite repeated United Nations resolutions.

This makes grim Christmas reading but it also provides an opportunity. At Christmas, our attention focuses on Bethlehem more than at any other time of the year. We can prevent the life being squeezed out of this holy place. Citizen's freedom may be under threat, but Bethlehem is doing its best to open up to the international community.

The international campaign, "Open Bethlehem" launched in London on 9 November, announced that Bethlehem Passports (honorary citizenship) would be available to all people of the world who "uphold the values of a just and open society and remain a true friend of Bethlehem throughout its imprisonment". With headquarters inside Bethlehem University and offices in London and Washington, 'Open Bethlehem' is well placed to keep that city at the forefront of world attention.

Details from the London office, Tel: +44 (0) 207 222 7820 or www.openbethlehem.org/contacts.asp. Thanks to David Roberts from Norwich United Nations Association for his help with this column.