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This Christmas, remember Palestine's Christians
Published Sunday 23/12/2012 (updated) 06/01/2013 16:45
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A man cleans a chandelier inside the Church of the Nativity, the
site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, ahead of Christmas in
Bethlehem, Dec. 22. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

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."

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.
1 ) shirleyS / Australia
23/12/2012 13:45
there needs to be more than BDS there needs an implosion of these walls they are genocide walls ghetto walls Apptheid is too weak an description of this wall and what it does it creates prisomns not just segregation this wal nees to go it is illegal and it is built IN THE STATE OF PALESTINE NOT ISREAL ISREALI GOV DOES NOT EVEN ABIDE BY ITS OWN COURTS DECISIONS ABOUT STOPPINGAREAS OF IT PA NEED TO JJOIN GENEVA CONVENTIONS AND GET ON WITH IT IT RATIFIES THESE SETTLEMENTS ILLEGAL AND THIS WALL

2 ) Anna / USA
23/12/2012 15:56
I was there in 1978, to see Christian sites. The Palestinians were the most wonderful and hospitable people I had ever met.

3 ) Mel / USA
23/12/2012 17:19
EVERY day we feel for ALL Palestinians.As a American Christian,what radical Zionism does to ALL Palestinians,Jews & ISRAEL offends me & my values!Brave activist Jesus,filled with MORALITY,died for RIGHTover might.Roman imperialism tolerated aristocratic Pharisees,temple money-changers,corrupters,thieves,JUST LIKE D.C. DOES!For strategy! Sacrificing goodness & right,for POWER,& to placate their proxies in a Holy Land!D.C.likes being'Rome'but Zionism's OCCUPATION is strategically a LIABILITY!

4 ) Tersites / espa?a
23/12/2012 19:01
Resulta curioso que las medidas israelies solo afecten a los cristianos, pero no a los musulmanes. Mairead Corrigan-Maguire miente como una perra, la nakba cristiana en belen es culpa de la Autoridad Nacional Palestina

5 ) ian / australia
25/12/2012 09:52
"...if Jesus Christ and his mother Mary [were] alive today, they would be "lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians." ' A nasty, puerile slur: Palestinians are violent and irrational and even Jesus and Mary (presumably as "Jews") wouldn't be safe amongst them. (The mix of chutzpah and incoherence is breathtaking: Jesus is only ever claimed as a "Jew", as "one of us", when there's some cheap shot to be made against Arabs...otherwise he's treated with contempt.) And if it actually came

6 ) ian / australia
25/12/2012 09:54
(contd.) from an embassy, as a "thought for Christmas"...well, what is WRONG with these people? But it makes you want to point out that it wasn't "hostile Palestinians" who killed Jesus. It was Romans doing the bidding of Levite priests! And that in a 1st Century biblical context, the idea of "Palestinians", hostile or not, really only corresponds to one group: rural Canaanites, farmers and shepherds, whether Judean, Galilean, Samaritan (or other Jehovah worshippers) who lived there. And as the

7 ) ian / australia
25/12/2012 09:54
(contd.) advent of Islam was 600 years away and as there is NO indication (beyond the "pop" read: Zionist history of the Jews) that they ever left...the conclusion is unavoidable: TODAY'S "hostile" Palestinians are the descendants of Canaanite Jehovah-worshippers who converted. (It's not really such a provocative idea: 6th Century BC Judeans "converted" to what the Levites in Babylon presented to them as their new religion (based on old scrolls, written by Moses (!!!) discovered in the Temple!)

8 ) ian / australia
25/12/2012 09:57
(contd.) And in the 7th century AD they converted to the new religion from Arabia. It's not so strange. The turkic Khazars converted to Judaism. And Catholics became Protestants.) So the big killing was done by Roman occupiers and "Jewish" elites (inc. the bloodthirsty King Herod who Massacred the Innocents)...everyone, that is, except "Palestinians". So Happy Hanukkah to the Israeli Embassy in Dublin for its delightful "thought for Christmas" ...a more sour, absurd and hateful

9 ) ian / australia
25/12/2012 09:58
(contd.) piece of racist incitement I cannot recall.

10 ) Tissa / Sri Lanka
26/12/2012 09:27
Sri Lankan pilgrims coming back from Bethlehem say that the Church of Nativity needs to be renovated very badly. Palestine has no money even to feed its people. Vatican must step in and do something before the roof and walls collapse.They says walls are dirty and plaster is coming out. Shame on the rich Catholics.

11 ) Jim / US
05/01/2013 12:54
This article is a very accurate depiction of what I saw in Bethlehem in October of 2012. The conditions are oppressive upon Palestinian Christians who I came to know personally and found them to be some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I have and will continue to share my perspectives of the Palestinian oppression by the US funded Israel government. Econominc sanctions need to be enforced by the UN against Israel.
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