Friday, December 22, 2006

Silent Nights in Bethlehem

Tourists have deserted Bethlehem. Jesus’ supposed birthplace is 10km south of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority West Bank. Bethlehem relies heavily on the tourism from a stream of Christian visitors who flock to the Church of the Nativity each Christmas. However, in 2005 less than 3,000 tourists visited at Christmas time, down from an average of 90,000 less than a decade ago. Fears of violence and the presence of the ugly Israeli security barrier is keeping them away.

The demographic of Bethlehem is also changing. The town's Christian population has dwindled from 85 % in 1948 to 12 % of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006. Christians own most of the town's hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops and are feeling the pinch of the tourist downturn. Joseph Canawati owns the 77-room Hotel Alexander. His attitude is typical, "there is no hope for the future of the Christian community” he told England’s Daily Mail.

An ecumenical delegation has arrived from England to show its solidarity with the West Bank town. Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor lead the multi-religious group. The group also includes the leader of the Armenian Church of Great Britain and the wonderfully titled Moderator of the Free Churches. Williams told the Guardian the purpose of the trip was to "be alongside people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, whose lives have been wrecked in different ways by terrorism and by the sense that they're hated and feared by each other”.

The atmosphere of the town has not been helped by the hugely controversial Israeli security barrier which runs along the northern edge of town physical separating it from Jerusalem. Israel contends that the barrier's route is based solely on security considerations. Other dispute that contention and say the primary reasons for choosing the route of many sections was to place certain areas intended for settlement expansion on the Israeli side of the fence. The currently approved route leaves fifty-five settlements (12 in East Jerusalem) separated from the rest of the West Bank on the Israeli side. These are mostly illegal settlements that breach international law.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an advisory judgement in July urging Israel to remove the fence from occupied land. The nonbinding opinion also obliged Israel to return confiscated land or make reparations for any damage to homes, businesses and farms due to the new barrier.

Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David as well as Jesus. According to Matthew 2:5 King Herod asked his priests and legal eagles where the Christ was to be born and they told him “in Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written”. The city was destroyed during the revolt of Bar Kokhba around 133 AD. The first Christian site was constructed on the site during the reign of Constantine in 326.

Despite being conquered by Muslims in the 7th century, the church was allowed to stand. The town fell to the first Crusaders in 1099. King Baldwin I was crowned first king of Jerusalem in Bethlehem on Christmas Day 1100. The town passed between Muslim and Christian hands during the crusades that followed. In 1347 Franciscans monks gained possession of the basilica and the Grotto of the Nativity. They held control jointly with Greek Orthodox priests despite the long rule of the Ottoman Empire which lasted until the end of the First World War.

It then fell under the control of the British Mandate of Palestine until 1947 when the UN decreed it would be part of the international enclave of Jerusalem. Jordan captured the city during the war that followed in 1948 and the city became home to many Palestinians made refugees by the Arab-Israeli war. Jordan retained control of Bethlehem until 1967. Then the Six-Day War brought Bethlehem under Israeli rule. The 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority and the Bethlehem Governate was created under its auspices a year later.

The 1,500 year old Church of the Nativity was the scene of a five week siege in 2002. In March that year, the Israeli army raided the city and chased about 200 people into the church where they sought sanctuary. The siege ended with an agreement for 13 militants to be sent via Cyprus to Europe and another 26 to be sent to Gaza. The rest were set free. The Israeli army said they found 40 explosive devices in the church.

The basilica is now the site of a squabble whichs threatens to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics the three Christian communities who share its custodianship. Large holes in the 500-year-old roof have in leaks which threaten to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics. The Armenian Church and the Catholic Franciscans each claim ownership of a third of the church but the Orthodox Greeks claim majority rights as descendants of the Byzantine founders. The Ottomans decreed the three churches should all have a key to the lock of the front door. But in 2002, the Orthodox Greeks changed the locks without consultation. They argued that decree grants the others keys but not the right to use them. Relations remain frosty between the parties. Meanwhile the ecumenical rain pours through the roof.

No comments: