I recently spent some time in the West Bank. On the Separation Wall in Bethlehem are powerful stories written by Palestinian Christians and Muslims about their experiences and how the occupation affects their lives. As we prepare to welcome the Christ child, I would like to share some of the stories from the people living in the place of his birth.
“Each day of the year we look forward to Christmas. Christmas is an entirely different experience in Bethlehem than anywhere else in the world, because this is the place where Jesus was born. The Nativity Church is very special and dear to me. I have been going there since I was a little boy and I feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to spread the message. We continue to pray for hope, practice love and keep alive through our faith. We believe this is a way we can keep our spirits high despite the occupation, making the first step towards peace. 'Love your enemies' is what Jesus preached and in his footsteps we must follow.”
By Father Issa (at the church of the Nativity)
Following the Star
“As a Moslem woman, I have special memories of Christmas. I remember when I was six years old – it was the Jordanian time (1948-1967) – soldiers of the Jordanian army used to sing beautiful songs the day before Christmas. Our house was close to the Shepherds' Fields in Beit Sahour. We used to be together with the Christians in praying and reciting until the evening. The Christians and also Moslems from Beit Sahour carried oil lamps while walking barefoot in the evening to Manger Square to commemorate the shepherds who were following the star that led them to the place where the Lord of Peace was born. During Christmas Day, our Christian neighbours knocked on our door and sent cookies and Christmas gifts. During Moslem feast day we sent, in the same spirit, cake, katayef (a kind of pancakes eaten at Ramadam nights) and chocolates. In the week after Christmas, we visited and congratulated Christian Friends.”
By Jamile from Beit Sahour (a predominately Christian area just east of Bethlehem)
Not as a Family
“We have an aunt living behind the wall on the Jerusalem side. Before they built the wall, we used to visit her all the time but now we can only go when we have a permit, maybe at Christmas. But then most of the time they only give me a permit and not my husband, or the other way round. But we want to go as a family, to feel freedom, to go and see the sea, for instance. The children ask me, “Mama, we want to go and have fun, why can't we go?” I tell them that we cannot go because we are living in a prison and do not have permission to leave. We cannot go because we are controlled by the Israelis. I tell them because I think they need to know.”
Mira, from Bethlehem
Bethlehem Youth and Christmas
“Christmas is special to us. The Patriarch enters Bethlehem the day before Christmas. As members of the scouts we join him, playing the drums and windpipes. Afterwards, we hand out chocolates on the street. Some of us sell calendars. We celebrate Christmas eve with a family barbecue. Some of us sit for hours at Manger Square when international concert groups perform music. Then we watch evening fireworks. That night we sleep only a few hour. The following day, when it is Christmas, we have a late breakfast, attend the Church with our families and enjoy a huge lunch afterwards. Then we go and visit relatives.”
Some Bethlehem youth
“I am the owner of a souvenir shop in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus, the messenger of love, has become an open prison. The irony is terrible but undeniable. Bethlehem is not only about Christmas anymore, but also about occupation. Both fundamentally impact unpon our lives.”
Elias, from Bethlehem
Carving designed by Claire Anastas, a resident of Bethlehem. It shows the shepherds on one side of the wall and the manger on the other. The wall is removable. Claire's prayer is for Bethlehem to be an open city, accessible to all.
Read more about Claire at: anastas-bethlehem.com