As Christians all over the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, we should also remember what that little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, looks like today.
These are distressing times for the Christians of the Holy Land, as revealed by a South African ecumenical delegation who were "traumatized" during an Advent visit to Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem this month.
Upon their return, they jointly said that they "did not expect the extent to which Israel violates international law to oppress the Palestinian people."
They reported that "it felt like walking into another apartheid ambush … the multiple Israeli house demolitions, the discriminatory Israeli legal system, the daily intimidation of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Apartheid Wall and its associated regime of restrictions on movement and access for Palestinians, the imprisonment of a large percentage of Palestinians (including children), the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian water and land, the closure of previously bustling Palestinian streets and businesses."
To simply take the case of Bethlehem -- although Christians live in many other areas of Palestine and Israel – one sees that from an historic high of 80 percent in 1947, Christians now make up only around 20 percent of the population. The past decade alone has seen over 10 percent of Christians leaving their homeland.
While there have been attempts by some with anti-Islamic or pro-Israel agendas to place the blame for this on "Muslim extremism," Palestinian Christians are the first to point out that is an untruth. A poll found that an overwhelming majority of Bethlehem's Christians blamed the Israeli occupation and its effect on the local economy for this migration.
"If there was no political problem, the economic situation would be good, so the problems are linked," says Hanna Eissa, the deputy minister of Christian religious affairs in the Palestinian Authority.
George Rishmawi of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement has said that "Christians are part of the Palestinian social fabric … and of Islamic culture. Palestinians do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians," and that "Israel makes no distinction between Christians and Muslims about land grabs."
Rishmawi cites Jabal Abu Ghneim as an example; most of this land, confiscated by Israel for the illegal settlement of Har Homa, is Christian land.
Indeed, these illegal Jewish-only settlements pose a grave threat to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, in Bethlehem. Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began in 1967, some of the largest settlements blocs have been built between Bethlehem and occupied East Jerusalem.
Today there are 22 of these settlements established on Bethlehem's land, while the illegal separation wall that surrounds most of Bethlehem steals a further 980 acres and restricts freedom of movement and trade.
This western network of settlements isolates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and if expanded to the east will stop any possible growth of Bethlehem towards the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea.
Israel has also announced that it intends to build tourist hotels in these settlements to attract Christian pilgrims, which will have a serious effect on tourism within Bethlehem. Many of Bethlehem's hoteliers, retailers and craftspeople are Christians who rely on tourism for survival, and for whom travel restrictions and an Israeli tourism industry which buses pilgrims only to the Church of the Nativity, and warns people not to interact with local Palestinians who are presented as dishonest and dangerous, have already had a massively negative impact.
To add insult to injury, most of land these Israeli hotels will be built on is owned by Christians from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, and churches of various denominations.
The Israeli occupation has also severely affected freedom of worship in Bethlehem. Not only does a harsh permit system restrict access to holy sites in Jerusalem for both Christians and Muslims, the settlements and separation wall hamper religious ceremonies in the Bethlehem - Beit Sahour - Beit Jala locality.
For example, Palestinians in Beit Jala, having already lost nearly 70 percent of their land to Israeli settlements are now faced with Israeli plans to erect a wall that will separate them from one of Bethlehem’s last green areas, the Cremisan Valley.
The land in this valley is owned by 58 Palestinian Christian families and by various churches. A Catholic kindergarten run by Salesian nuns will be heavily affected by the Israeli plan, while a Catholic Seminary and the winery run by Salesian Brothers will be left on the western "Israeli" side of wall. If this wall is built, Catholic Palestinians will also lose one of their most precious traditions; every May, the community conducts a procession from the statue of the Virgin Mary in Cremisan, to the Church of the Annunciation in Beit Jala.
Similarly, the Mar Elias Monastery - one of the holiest Christian places in Palestine, where St. Elijah fled to after angering Jezebel - is historically where the Christmas procession to Bethlehem begins every year. However, Israeli restrictions have placed the church off limits to Palestinian Christian worshipers seeking to pray there.
Christians should heed the words of their South African brethren who have just returned from the Holy Land. They have said that we should "support the Palestinians' call for non-violent resistance."
They ask for responsible Holy Land tourism whereby pilgrims who visit Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem also visit Palestinian Christians -- who are indigenous to those towns.
The Palestinians are also asking the world for economic, cultural and other forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions -- a strategy that helped us to end apartheid in South Africa.
We believe that maximum pressure must be put on Israe lto abide by international law. This should be done on the basis of "equality and sharing, not on superiority, negation of the other or aggression, using the pretext of fear and security" as stated in the Palestinian Kairos document, A Moment of Truth.Mairead Corrigan-Maguire won the 1976 Nobel peace prize and founded the Northern Ireland Peace Movement, later renamed the Community of Peace People.
Recently, the Israeli Embassy in Ireland posted a "thought for Christmas" its Facebook page to the effect that if Jesus Christ and his mother Mary alive today, they would be "lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians."