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January 2002

Oh little town of Bethlehem - By Karen Nakamura
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

    Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ no longer lies in a deep and dreamless sleep these nights. Rocket and shell explosions terrify its children. Tanks and warplanes surround the city, tearing up the Shepherd's Fields where angels once appeared. Settlers shoot at school children from their homes above. Today's Baby Jesus cries in terror on his first night on earth. He's not unlike other babies in the West Bank.
   It seems it's the worldwide Christian community who's in a dreamless sleep. One of the holiest sites of Christendom, the walled city is being shelled regularly by an Israeli militia intent on leveling Palestine. Within the last year alone, hundreds of rockets, mortars and shells have shaken Bethlehem's ancient walls. Its streets have been invaded at least twice, in April and October and the Church of the Nativity and other religious sites have been threatened. Streets down which Joseph led Mary and the donkey are being crushed to rubble by Israeli tanks.
   Where are the outcries of support from the worldwide Christian community? Where is the concern for the desecration of one of the most holy and archeologically precious spots on earth? We screamed when the Taliban defaced the Buddhist statues and rightly so. Why aren't we screaming even more loudly when tanks rumble close to Manger Square?
   Are we under some kind of magic spell so that even in viewing the carnage we don't react? Where is the anger of the pulpit? Where's the Church? Pope John Paul II, interestingly enough, on his visit to Bethlehem in 2000, begged Christian Arabs not to abandon the Holy Land. That's a lovely and brave sentiment for one whom shortly after flew off to the safety of Rome. The truth of the situation is the same as it has always been in any war-torn area. People are getting out as fast as they can. Thousands have left in the past year. And Bethlehem isn't the only place. Twenty thousand Israelis applied for US work permits in the first six months of last year.
   Situated 6 miles southwest of Jerusalem and first mentioned in 1400 BCE, Bethlehem is approximately half way to Hebron. Fifty years ago, 90 percent of Bethlehem's approximately 20,000-30,000 citizens were Christians. By 1999, that number had shrunk to 35%. Descendants of the earliest Christians and Crusaders, in modern history, they represent only 2% of either Palestinian or Israeli populations. Arab Christians are considered second-class citizens by many Jews and Arabs although they tend to be prosperous.
   The 1980 census figures show the three connected towns of Beit Jala to the northwest, Bethlehem and Beit Saber in the southeast, all with large numbers of Christians, added up to 58,819 people.  These numbers ebb and flow as fighting in other areas push Muslims in or Christians out, and occurs with increasing regularity.
   In 1999, Bethlehem was getting ready for the advent of thousands of Millennium visitors from across the globe. Three hundred million dollars in loans from the European Union were available to refurbish important sites and generally spruce the place up. All of this was to no avail. Skirmishes during the New Year holidays kept tourists at bay. Even the Pope's visit in March of 2000 did little to stop the hemorrhaging of Christians. Forget tourists.
   Then came the 2001 Israeli intrusions into West Bank territories, first in April and then October. Israeli tanks and soldiers raged in Bethlehem for 11 days in October, roaring defiantly up and down ancient streets and shooting anyone in their way. The Palestinian Authority's website, www.p-o-o.org shows reports of constant Israeli's violation of the peace agreement. There are daily infractions. Besides a total Israeli siege on all Palestinian cities and villages that keeps residents from moving from town to town, a daily pattern of harassment, torture and murder is evident in the Palestinians' reports; Dec. 11-12, there were 22 violations, Dec. 19-20, 11 violations, Dec. 14-15, 14, and so on.
   Bethlehem was particularly battered during the October siege. For 11 days, the Israeli militia had its way. When it pulled out on the 29th, 22 residents, including women and children, had died. Tanks had crushed cars, knocked down power poles and torn up the roads. Israel has arrogantly stated it will move in and out of the West Bank at its own discretion.
   Drastically reduced tourist numbers aren't the only indicators of residents getting out. A Lutheran priest in Beit Sabour, Rev. Mitri Raheb, interviewed in the June 5, 2001 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said he had lost half of his 500-member congregation and that 70 families had left after April's bombings by Israel. "The very existence of the Christian community is threatened."
   Where are the voices of Billy Graham and Pat Robinson on this? Or the Archbishop of Canterbury? Of the Council of Churches?
 

 

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