Bethlehem, Palestine/Holy Land                                                                             

“Jesus is the door to peace”

As Bethlehem celebrated Christmas in difficult circumstances, the Church wants to use the Year of Mercy to strengthen the faith of Christians in the birthplace of Jesus  

Children in costumes were enacting the Nativity of Jesus deep in the subterranean chapels tucked away into nooks and crannies under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A silver star marks the birthplace in a grotto just a few metres away. The little actors that played the parts of the Holy Family and the Magi were children with disabilities from all over Palestine. They live in a house near the Church of the Nativity, which is run by nuns from the Institute of the Incarnate Word. “Our children need strong impressions to understand the truths of our faith,” Sister Maria, who takes care of the little ones, said. “A nativity scene helps them understand the mystery of Christmas. That, out of love for us, God became a small and weak child just like them so that He could share our lot: this makes it clear to them.”

The quiet, peaceful scene in the Church of the Nativity stood in stark contrast to the situation in the Holy Land in general. There was no sign of Christmas peace in the surrounding areas. For months a wave of violence has been sweeping through Israel and Palestine. More than 20 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian assailants since the end of September. In most cases knives and other stabbing weapons were used. More than 100 Palestinians were killed in defensive action or in violent clashes, hundreds were wounded. The violence was sparked by fears that Israel wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is revered as a sacred site by both Muslims and Jews alike. Observers, however, believe that the underlying reason for the unrests is the political gridlock between Israelis and Palestinians. A peace settlement and a two-state solution do not seem to be in reach.

This year, Bethlehem’s municipal administration decided to hold more modest Christmas celebrations out of respect for the victims of the violence. Catholic Mayor Vera Baboun explained what makes this year different. “We just did not want to celebrate Christmas as though nothing were happening. When we set up the Christmas tree before the Church of the Nativity, we did not hold the fireworks display. Instead, the bells of the city’s churches were rung. Churches from all over the world joined us in ringing their bells for peace. We also reduced the holiday illuminations. We wanted to show that although we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, at the same time we are not at peace and are mourning our dead.”

However, the violence is not only reflected in the reduced number of festivities. Bethlehem’s tourism sector is complaining that this year’s season has fallen far short of expectations. The Christmas season is crucial to Bethlehem in general and to its Christians specifically. The livelihood of many Christians depends upon providing food, drink and lodgings to pilgrims and selling devotional items. “This year was very bad,” Jack Giacaman told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The Catholic sells figurines carved out of olive wood from Bethlehem. His shop, which is close to the Milk Grotto, where it is said that the Virgin Mary nursed the Christ child, is empty. “The Gaza War last year has made the people afraid of travelling to the Holy Land. This is unfounded. Pilgrims are safe here. But many have still cancelled their bookings.” The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that the rooms were scarcely at half their usual occupancyduring this year’s Christmas season. Thus, in the place where Mary and Joseph once searched unsuccessfully for a room, many  stood empty in 2015.

In light of the difficult economic and political situation, more and more Christian families have taken the decision to leave Bethlehem and the Holy Land. The mood has further been depressed by the fact that almost sixty Christian families in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem are now going to lose their land to the separation barrier built by Israel despite years of litigation. This has also led many Christians to doubt the possibility of a future in the Holy Land. “Several more families just recently left. This is very painful for us,” Father Pater Ricardo Bustos said when he spoke to Aid to the Church in Need. The priest is guardian of the Franciscan monastery near the Church of the Nativity. In May of last year he welcomed Pope Francis here. Father Ricardo still knows him from the time when the pope was working in Argentina.

Father Ricardo is convinced that “Jesus is the door to peace with God and with each other. God has come to change the state of affairs here:” According to Father Ricardo, this is especially true in the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis: “Even though the child in the manger may appear fragile: God’s promise is strong and constant”.

Oliver Maksan