Seven years ago, just before the intifada, we took a small group of students to Bethlehem on Christmas day to study Luke chapter 2 and focus on the gift of Yeshua to the world in the authentic town of His birth. Shortly thereafter the intifada broke out and Bethlehem became a dangerous place for Israelis to visit. The government eventually forbade its citizens to enter in concern for their safety.
|A plea for peace on the security wall|
This year, however, I felt things had calmed down and the time had come for my return to this town that is literally "so close but yet so far". (Bethlehem borders the southern side of Jerusalem, just a fifteen minute drive from the city center.) Christina, a friend and member of our community, agreed to go with me.
The Jewish Israeli taxi driver who drove us to the border crossing wanted to know the meaning of Christmas. "You know it should be an Israeli holiday because Jesus was a Jew," we joked with him before getting out.
We passed through the border crossing uneventfully and took a taxi to Manger Square, a central area refurbished specifically to receive tourists. I remembered Manger Square as a busy, cheerful walking mall filled with tourists and locals, shopping, eating, strolling and in general enjoying the holiday.
However, as we were let off I was suddenly filled with foreboding thoughts. The "walking mall" was filled with cars and although the newspapers had predicted 20,000 tourists there were no tourists to be found! Aside from a couple of stray females in Muslim garb, the streets were filled with men. I clutched Christina's arm. We stuck out like sore thumbs, literally.
A large mosque on one side of Manger Square dominated the sky. Christmas decorations were sparse - a lone tree on a side street, a Santa Claus in front of a store, a strip of fern over a walkway. We huddled together and agreed not to stay long. Finally we spotted a middle aged western looking couple and asked them what was going on - where were all the tourists and festivities? They informed us that the flux of tourists came and left the night before (and turned out to be closer to 2,000 than 20,000). The only thing to do here was visit the Church of the Nativity, bordering one side of the square, and thought (by them!) to be the true birthplace of Jesus.
We adhered and visited the church, discovering the remainder of tourists in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the spirit in the church was no more encouraging than the spirit outside. The interior was dark and gloomy. Large ornate chandeliers, statues and religious objects filled the sanctuaries, and monks were selling and lighting candles along the walls.
|A mosque in Manger Square|
We left the church and again entered Manger Square when it suddenly dawned on me what the problem was. The town of Bethlehem wasn't celebrating Christmas! The festivities and decorations had been constructed specifically for tourists and now that the tourists were gone, so was the holiday cheer! The "Christmas spirit" had been imported for a few hours and did not represent the heart of the city.
I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of sadness and burden for this town and its inhabitants. Bethlehem, once predominately Christian, was now predominately Muslim. The Christian residents were slowly but surely being driven out. My spirit mourned.
As we left the city and turned back towards Jerusalem we prayed - for the remaining Christians in Bethlehem to be strengthened and encouraged, for the Muslim inhabitants to see the light of Yeshua, and for this city to become a place where the birth and life of Yeshua is celebrated, not only on Christmas, but on every day of the year!
Also in this issue of the newsletter:
|Daniel Juster: Zionism & Justice|
|Eitan Shishkoff: The Harvest|
|Martin Shoub: Champion of the Forgotten|
|Idan's Testimony: To Bind Up The Broken Hearted|