Life is hard for Bethlehem’s Christians


Melanie McDonagh

(Credit: Getty images)

Melanie McDonagh

23 December 2022

5:45 PM

O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie: except the place is, in fact, buzzing in the run-up to Christmas. I had to squeeze between groups of American tourists to get into the little Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christ was born. When I made it in, I created an impediment to the flow of pilgrims by kissing the ground near the star marking the place of his birth. Everyone who followed me did the same, with some effort on the part of the chunkier pilgrims.

It’s good news that Bethlehem is getting back to business. The shops selling nativity figures, Christmas decorations, pilgrim tat and olivewood rosary beads are hopping – the Nativity store where I got my souvenirs was stuffed with Polish pilgrims. The Christians of Bethlehem, about a quarter of the population nowadays, rely on pilgrim trade, and numbers dried up during the pandemic.

Things took an uglier turn last month at the Feast of the Holy Cross when an armed soldier spat at the patriarch

But for the Christian population, Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Jerusalem and, if you’re an Arab, it’s ridiculously difficult to travel between them: there are dozens of visas needed for different purposes – one for religious visits, one for work, another for hospitals and so on. If you’re a Jerusalemite wanting to marry someone from Bethlehem, it can take years to obtain a permit to allow them to live with you. We’re talking here about respectable individuals, not terrorists.

I was in Jerusalem with a press group at the invitation of Christian leaders. There was the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilus, a man so cheerful with such a fine beard the Sunday Times journalist with me noted he could do sterling business as Santa, no questions asked. He did indeed give us a present in parting: nice icons of the Virgin and Child. After the patriarch we went to see the Custos, the Franciscan guardian of the Holy Places, the Latin Patriarch, the Italian Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and a representative of the Armenian Church.

To cut to the chase, they all said the same thing: Christians – who now constitute a measly 10,000 of the city’s total population, less than two per cent – face a hostile environment in Jerusalem from radical settler groups; clergy encounter verbal and physical intimidation from young radicals; the local authority closes off parts of the city at will without regard for strategic Christian sites (the Custos found himself holed up in his friary without warning and the Armenian quarter was closed for days, meaning seminarians couldn’t enter their monastery); the municipal authorities hold noisy and obtrusive festivals right outside sites like the patriarchate during the holiest seasons; the settler group Ateret Cohanim is engaged in aggressive property acquisition in the Christian quarter.

The Armenian representative, Fr Koryun Baghdasaryan, is used to getting cursed and spat at by young Jewish extremists, whose route to the Wailing Wall takes them through the ancient Armenian quarter. But things took an uglier turn last month at the Feast of the Holy Cross when an armed soldier spat at the patriarch, carrying the cross in procession. It was, in fact, Israeli journalists who got the authorities to take the matter seriously.

Baghdasaryan is fed up reporting the abuse to the usual quarters, the earnest representatives of the US and the EU and European governments who monitor these things. ‘Every year,’ he says, ‘I write a report to the US body which is responsible for religious freedom and nothing, absolutely nothing, ever happens’. Indeed nothing changed as a result of Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.

On the bright side, the Armenians are doing their bit for the economy – they’re the silversmiths and ceramicists of Jerusalem. I asked Fr Baghdasaryan whether there are problems with unemployment. He simply snorted.

‘Armenians,’ he said firmly, ‘can work two, three, shifts. If a man is unemployed, he is lazy’. I reckon Spectator readers would warm to him.

Above all, what’s troubling the religious leaders are the plans for the development of the area east of the Old City around the Mount of Olives – intimately associated with the life of Christ – which are at odds with its sacred character. The Jewish human rights group, Ir Amim, points out that if proposals for a promenade cutting through church and Palestinian property go ahead (linking two separate Jewish settler communities), it will transform the place from an open space connecting Palestinian areas (much of it church land) to an area developed to attract Israeli tourists.

When the churches object to the proposals, they’re usually shelved for a time, only to be brought back later. At present they’re billed for reconsideration next August. Does anyone think that a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to see them off? Me neither.

The tensions playing out on the streets of Jerusalem are caused by small radical groups, not the majority Israeli population. And church leaders see themselves as part of a triune city made up of Jews, Muslims and Christians. Or as the Orthodox Patriarch put it: ‘Christians are a buffer zone. They promote the values of the Bible: peace, respect, co-existence. With Jews, we drink from the same spiritual well.’

At this time of year, every Christian on earth is focusing on what happened 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land. And if they do come, all those faithful, to Bethlehem, like the Adeste Fideles carol says, they’ll find the churches which are celebrating the birth of Christ having a really hard time. Christians in Britain should be letting the government know it’s something we care about.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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