In Bethlehem, away with the manger

Dion Nissenbaum and Cliff Churgin

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — For generations, the Holy Land Arts Museum has been selling carved olive wood manger scenes to thousands of religious pilgrims looking for souvenirs from the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.
This year, the small Bethlehem shop decided that it was time to update the traditional Christmas scene.

Gone is the olive wood manger shielding the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In its place, looming over the angelic family, are an Israeli watchtower and three towering sections of an adjoining wall.

The modern day creche, said Holy Land Arts Museum manager Jack Giacaman, is a reminder that this holy Christian city remains largely isolated from the outside world by Israel's 25-foot-tall concrete walls, part of Israel's separation barrier.

"Bethlehem is like a small prison," Giacaman said. "Everywhere you look, there are walls."
Tourists are flocking to Bethlehem in growing numbers after years of violent conflict scared them off. But Israeli policies and the towering concrete walls outside Bethlehem prevent most residents from visiting nearby Jerusalem, although it's just 10 minutes up the road.
"Going to Jerusalem is like a dream," said Bethlehem resident Suha Asfour. "It's like going to New York."

This year, international artists have helped bring renewed attention to the walls surrounding Bethlehem. Led by a mysterious graffiti artist known as Banksy, painters from around the world converged on Bethlehem's Manger Square this month to set up "Santa's Ghetto," a temporary political art show and auction. In one work, a lone leg appears to be smashing through the wall.
But while the two-week-old exhibit has helped draw visitors — nearly a half million people have visited Bethlehem this year — the wall has choked off Bethlehem's economy in a way that no art show can restore.

"You look at the political situation, there's a lot of stress, a lot of depression. There are headaches and unemployment," said Naim Khoury, the pastor of Bethlehem's First Baptist Church. "Building of the wall has prevented people from finding work. People see there are better opportunities outside the country."

The volatile politics have fundamentally changed what used to be Bethlehem's Christian character.

During the Palestinian uprising, which ended in 2005, more than 3,000 Christian Palestinians left the West Bank, said Bernard Sabella, a sociologist at Bethlehem University who's done extensive research on the issue. Most of them came from Bethlehem.

At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 80 percent of Bethlehem residents were Christians. These days, less than a third are. Of the 70,000 Palestinians who live in and around Bethlehem, only 22,000 are Christian.

The steady influx of Muslims has brought more conservative values to Bethlehem and created periodic tensions, especially among Christians, who sometimes feel like a beleaguered minority.
Suha Asfour, 36, and her husband have been fighting a years-long battle with a Muslim family that tried to seize some of the Asfours' land in Bethlehem.

"I feel that some Muslims respect our religion, but not all," said Asfour, whose parents moved from Bethlehem to California more than a decade ago.

Though there may be some underlying religious tensions, Sabella said there are larger forces pushing Christians out of Bethlehem.

"The answer is not religious," he said. "Rather it's a political, economic phenomenon, and unless there is political stability and economic prosperity, the more skilled, prosperous Palestinians will be leaving — both Christians and Muslims."

Though her parents have left and there's always a pull to raise her four children in a safer place, Asfour stays because she feels a spiritual connection to Bethlehem, especially during Christmas.
"There's something really special in Bethlehem that you cannot see anywhere else in the world," she said. "Bethlehem is where Jesus Christ was born. Why? To have no Christians?"

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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