Q: As we near Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, tell us what Bethlehem is like today. Is it still just a small town in the middle of nowhere?
A: By way of introduction, I want to point out that I have been blessed to visit the Holy Land several times, once spending several months there studying and visiting many sites. My group lived in Bethany, only a couple of miles from the Old City of Jerusalem but located in the occupied West Bank. This location allowed us to experience some of the daily struggles of the peoples. Indeed, any discussion about Palestine and Israel—even just questions about Bethlehem—needs to acknowledge these struggles, rooted in Israeli oppression and occupation and in Palestinian reaction, often including violent actions. Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem. Bethlehem is a small city not unlike some towns that surround Cincinnati. Given its history, tourism has been a major part of its economy, once flourishing but now suffering.
Q: Tens of thousands of people used to flock to Manger Square every Christmas to celebrate Jesus’ birth, despite Bethlehem being in a Palestinian-controlled section of Israel. Several years ago a Palestinian uprising began and this year Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died. Is it even safe to celebrate there now?
A: Because of the various forms of violence present in Israel and Palestine, there is always risk involved. The same is true, of course, in many areas of the U.S.A., especially our big cities. Caution, patience and awareness would be important for any visitor or pilgrim.
Q: What do the Palestinians think about Christians celebrating in their area? Are they tolerant of other religions? Or do they just see the people as tourists with money to spend?
A: First, it is important to remember that some Palestinians are Christian. Not only did they welcome us into their stores but also into their homes and churches. Also, many Palestinians who are Muslim have great respect for Jesus and Mary. My last visit was in 1999, so I do not know if the present policies of the U.S. government have lessened the welcome and warmth—the kind of welcome we received—or if the people distinguish between U.S. citizens and the U.S. government.
Q: How else/where else is Jesus’ birth celebrated in the Holy Land?
A: Because of the oppression and other forms of violence, many Christians have moved from the Holy Land. This is a grave concern for the Christian churches. Still, Christmas will certainly be celebrated throughout the land wherever Christian communities gather.
Q: Where can we learn more?
A: On the struggles in the Holy Land, please see articles in “America” by Drew Christiansen, S.J. For some Scriptural insights into the Christmas stories, see “An Adult Christ at Christmas” by Raymond Brown, S.S. (Liturgical Press) or chapter three in Brown’s “Reading the Gospels with the Church” (St. Anthony Messenger Press).