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Bethlehem Looks Hopefully To Future
Christmas 2009: Calm and prosperous in the West Bank
Yehonathan Tommer (tommery06)     Print Article 
Published 2009-12-21 17:31 (KST)   
Christmas 2009 looks to be the calmest, brightest and the most prosperous in a decade for residents of the troubled Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the historic birthplace of Jesus.

But as one scratches the surface of political stability, law and order and economic growth, which the Palestinian Authority has deservedly earned for its efforts in recent years, a starker reality emerges of the city's dwindling Christian minority subjected to Muslim intimidation, political marginalization and a fear for its continuing survival.

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Some 70,000 pilgrims this year are expected to visit Bethlehem during the near two week-long festivities, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry. They will be part of a total 850,000 persons which will have visited the city by the end of 2009, a sharp fall from the record 1.25 million visitors in 2008, due to the global financial downturn.

Palestinian authorities expect between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors alone to attend Christmas Eve masses in and around the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, along with local Church leaders and other dignitaries from around the world on December 24th.

At night the city is festively lit in color with electric light bulbs decorating shop windows and the facades of public, municipal and church buildings. This year's decorations were funded from a budget of $92,000.

The Palestinian Authority allocated more than half the sum and the remainder was donated by Christian communities in Chile and the American state of Missouri which both have twin sister relationships with Bethlehem.

Israeli tourism authorities are providing free shuttle transport on the hour every hour for pilgrims from the Mar Elias Monastery on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and every half hour on the return trip between noon Christmas Eve and noon Christmas Day (Dec. 25th).

This is a distance of less than six kilometers. But the ride from downtown Jerusalem, another five kilometers away, can take up to one hour in each direction on normal days and 90 minutes or more on festive days. This is because of the bumper to bumper traffic lined up to pass through the Israeli security check at the narrow border crossing in the eight meter high concrete wall on the city's edge.

No future for Bethlehem's Christians

Bethlehem, which numbers some 30,000 residents, has a rapidly diminishing Christian population. Palestinian officials, including Bethlehem's Greek Orthodox mayor, 75-year old Victor Batarsa, a medical practioner who is completing a second term of elected office, place the ratio at 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim.

Palestinian officials minimize Bethlehem's ethnic and cultural tensions. These precede the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, they say, and were aggravated by years of chaos during the Second Intifada when armed militias and criminal elements roamed the streets and terrorized the city's civilians.

"Today, the security situation in this area, as indeed throughout the whole of the West Bank, is stable and strong," says Brigadier General Abu Hadid, Commander of the overall Palestinian forces in the Bethlehem Governate. The Palestinian Authority is in complete control, he says, explaining the prolonged calm as the result of a strategic decision by the Palestinian government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salem Fayyad to enforce law and order and clamp down on widespread crime and mafia groups. Despite his grievances, Abu Hadid says that the security coordination with Israel is "ongoing and good."

But Samir Qumsieh, the founding managing director of Al Mahad Nativity television station in neighboring Beit Sahur, and a Christian affairs researcher, says that Bethlehem's socio-economically better off Christians are afraid publicly to protest their persecution and the Churches refrain from intervening. Today, through continuing emigration to the West, Bethlehem's Christians have dwindled to 12 per cent of the population. This compares to the 98 percent of the city's population, which they constituted in 1948. Their declining numbers are not entirely due to Israel's 40 years of occupation.

The main reasons for their flight from Bethlehem, says Qumsieyeh, is the covert Muslim racism, gang beatings, thuggery, exclusion from government posts and an organized land mafia aimed at stealing their agricultural and urban property.

"Christians don't see a future here for themselves, their children or grandchildren," says Qumsieh. "Soon there won't be any left to maintain preserve the holy sites."

He wryly adds that "God is angry with this country because he was crucified here."

Bethlehem-born Amira Farhood, 18, a student of mass media at the 30-year old Bethlehem Bible College, which trains and prepares young Christian leaders to serve in Christian communities in Palestine and abroad, intends to immigrate to Rome after she finishes her degree studies.

She has been personally abused for the visible cross she proudly wears around her neck. She is also very worried about the growing conservatism and Islamisation of her Muslim neighbors, and cannot see herself marrying a Muslim or living in what she calls a "restrictive social environment in which women are not treated as equals."

Y.H., a third year theology student at the Bethlehem Bible College, fled from the Gaza Strip where he was studying law to the West Bank two years ago. His application for a visa to the United States was rejected. Without an Israeli entry permit he is an illegal resident in Bethlehem. If he tries to leave Bethlehem he is likely to be arrested by the Israelis and sent back to the Gaza Strip where his life is in danger.

He lives in fear for the safety of his family. He is afraid to call them and suspects that the telephone lines are tapped.

"Life is difficult, cruel and unsafe" for the strip's 5,000 Christians, he says. "People are increasingly turning to a growing Islamic fanaticism. Many female Christians are voluntarily wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf and, under Hamas pressure, Christians are converting to Islam to maintain the appearance of a normal life."

Under these conditions, predicts Qumsieh, the number of Christians living in the Gaza Strip will probably dwindle to no more than 1,700 by the end of 2010.

Palestinian business wants an equal cut in pilgrim tourism

As I strolled across Manger Square -- where groups of pilgrims stream to the Church of Nativity -- I noticed that many souvenir shops and restaurants were empty and their owners were standing outside idly smoking or conversing with their neighbors in the late afternoon sun.

Joseph Giacamen and his two brothers own large tracts of agricultural land around Bethlehem. The family's three stores in Manger Square display a handsome range of sculpted olive wood figurines and religious artifacts manufactured in his workshops and exported around the world. Most of his merchandise can also be bought in the Old City of Jerusalem at prices significantly higher than in Bethlehem.

"Israeli tour operators don't allow pilgrims sufficient time to browse and shop in the 30 shops around Manger Square," Giacamen complained. "In the week before Christmas, between 100 and 150 tour buses unload groups every day. They head straight for the Church of Nativity and are instructed to return immediately to their coaches which ferry them back to Jerusalem. Our shops and restaurants hardly benefit from pilgrim business."

The same is true of the Bethlehem's 4,500 hotel rooms, which are cheaper than in Jerusalem and offer better service, said Mayor Batarsa. "These are fully booked, mainly by local Christians from different parts of the West Bank and also Israel, but few foreign pilgrims even stay overnight."

Another 1,000 rooms will be added by June 2010, but could remain unoccupied unless Israel agrees to encourage more pilgrim stays in Bethlehem.

"We must equal partners with Israel in tourism to the Palestinian territories," says 45-year-old Palestinian Authority Minister for Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Kholoud Deibis, who was a former architect specializing in the preservation of historic buildings. She sees tourism as a "vehicle for peace and Palestinian-Israeli understanding" and would like to see more Israelis allowed to visit Bethlehem.

She also wants to tap into the vast pilgrim potential in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation to develop a niche in cultural tourism, international conference hosting and eco-tourism in the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea area.

For these programs to materialize, Deibis says, "Israel must be willing to cooperate and partner joint tourism ventures. If not, we have a missed opportunity."

During the two years in which she has held her ministerial portfolio, Deibis has still not spoken with or met her Israeli counterpart.

"The ministries are still negotiating core issues over freedom of movement and no breakthrough has been achieved," she says.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yehonathan Tommer

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