Reframing Bethlehem: from a symbol of hope to a symbol of war (and back again)

We’d like to believe modern-day Bethlehem is still the quaint and peaceful Middle-Eastern village in our carols: lying still on a hilltop “as silent stars go by” and “angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.” But, as it turns out, the brief respite when Jesus was born was more an exception than the norm. You don’t have to look far in your Bible and modern history to see a different reality. Now, situated in the throes of the seemingly interminable Isreali-Palestininian conflict, its inhabitants—many of whom are Christian—have endured decades of hardship. In response to their cry for help, Bethlehem is emerging as a major concern in the global Christian Conscience. The era of Peace in Bethlehem has not yet arrived, but with the growing involvement of the Church, we can maintain our hope and faith that it will.

Bethlehem: A Brief History

We know this town carries a great deal of importance for the Jews. Bethlehem is where the great matriarch, Rachel, was buried; where Ruth and Boaz fell in love; where King David was born and honed his poetic skills on the grazing fields; and where many still foresee the birth of the coming Messiah. Bethlehem is important to Muslims as well. They share the belief that it’s the birthplace of their revered prophet ‘Issa (Jesus), who was born of the Virgin Mary; but its history doesn’t end at the nativity. The Church of the Nativity in the centre of town is considered by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited church in the world (327 to present). It housed Saint Jerome as he translated the New Testament into the Latin Vulgate, a monumental occasion in Christian history. And despite centuries of marauding empires from all corners of the globe, Bethlehem’s Christian residents maintained a steadfast presence throughout the last two millennia.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that Christians began to recede into a minority. They emigrated en masse during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In 1948, Bethlehem’s population spiked as war broke out with the Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian refugees—fleeing their homes in what is now Israel—found “temporary” residence in the surrounding hillside. Bethlehem went under Jordanian rule, and with the help of the UN, three refugee camps were established to house the landless and disgruntled refugees. In 1967, in a matter of 6 days the Israeli Military pushed out the Jordanians and captured the entire surrounding area, creating a new wave of refugees. Now Palestinians make the largest refugee population in the world.

Israeli Occupation and Palestinian Violence

Life under Israeli occupation has not been pleasant. Military courts deprived Palestinians of basic rights from democratic elections and the right to a fair trial, to rights of property ownership and freedom from torture. To this day most of the West Bank is run by the same Israeli Military Order which oversees the confiscation of Palestinian land and the growth of illegal settlements. Christians and Muslims alike eventually revolted against the intolerable conditions. In the late 80s and early 2000s, the vast majority of inhabitants of greater Bethlehem joined in the popular uprisings known as the “intifadas.” The first uprising started off non-violently, with mass protests, marches, and demonstrations, but quickly escalated. Countless Palestinians were imprisoned, thousands were killed, and hundreds Israelis died in the fray as well. Some of Bethlehem’s residents, mostly descendants of the 1948 refugees, chose to react through horrific acts of terrorism. Some even joined in the bus bombings of the 1990s and early 2000s resulting in the tragic loss of innocent Israeli lives

In response to the terrorism and violence, and some say, as a means of annexing more land, Israel built a massive wall north and west of Bethlehem. On the B’Tselem website—an Israeli human rights organization—you can see an interactive map showing the wall coil around the ancient Tomb of Rachel (mentioned above) and cutting through swaths of Palestinian owned land. Bethlehem is now almost entirely surrounded by settlements and walls.

Seeds of Hope

Human rights abuses were somewhat curtailed when the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was established in the 1990s. The lack of direct contact with Israeli soldiers decreased violence, and the presence of a Palestinian Government brought hope, but Bethlehemites were soon disappointed by the bureaucracy, corruption, and nepotism of the Palestinian state. Now, instead of having self-determination, the residents of Bethlehem feel ruled by two unjust regimes.

In 2009, top leaders all Palestinian Christian denominations joined forces to write a public cry for help. They compiled the Kairos Document in which they outlined their hardships, their belief that God’s vision for the land includes their presence and well-being, and their biblically-based hope for peace and justice.

As Christians around the world are beginning to hear the story of modern-day Bethlehem, I believe Bethlehem will become an important symbol of injustice, emboldening thousands of Christians to take action. Early signs of this movement are already showing in art, music, film, academia, sermons, tourism, and social entrepreneurship. Now the story of the Nativity and the current socio-political realities are merging together in a flourishing of art and story-telling: Bethlehem is starting to take on a new meaning.

My hope is that soon the church will be at the forefront of this issue and will be deemed by historians as a critical force in ending the injustices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, I invite you to join this movement.

postcard image orignally from Doctors of the World

for more information on Christian movements of hope in Palestine, check out Walter’s Blog