Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

November 11, 2019

by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief

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Every Christmas thousands of Christians flock to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday close to where Jesus (Yeshua) was born. They marvel at the 40-foot Christmas tree, bow their heads at the Church of Nativity and sing Christmas carols in the frosty night air.

Once Christmas is over, Bethlehem returns to normal. The tree comes down. Lights are packed away until next year. Hallelujah choruses make way for the Muslim call to prayer. And the throngs of Christians disappear from Bethlehem, leaving the little town of Jesus’ birth with only a tiny flock of native faithful residents.

This wasn’t always the case. Less than 25 years ago, the vast majority of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christian. Today, the number hovers around 16%—and continues to plummet.

The mass migration hasn’t gone unnoticed. Journalists, religious leaders and human rights activists have all asked the question: who stands to blame for the exodus of Christians from Jesus’ birthplace? Who is the big, bad wolf that scattered the flock of faithful from the little town where angels once heralded the birth of the Christian Messiah?

A Convenient Scapegoat

Many point a finger at a convenient scapegoat: Israel. News sources lament “the roadblocks, checkpoints, [and] difficulties traveling,” warn that “Israel’s decades-long occupation” could “leave the land without a living church” and claim outright that “Israel’s blockade has eroded the number of Palestinian Christians.”

Their recommendation? Remove Israel from the equation, dismantle the security fence and checkpoints that stop Palestinian snipers from picking off Israeli drivers and keep suicide bombers from Israeli restaurants and public buses—and Bethlehem will once again be a safe haven for Christians. While the argument serves up a generous helping of the popular Palestinian victim narrative, it is shockingly lean on logic.

Slandering Israel as the sole scapegoat conveniently disregards the fact that during the same period that the Christian population dropped so drastically, the Muslim population has not plummeted in equal proportion. On the contrary, it has grown. In other words, Muslims are not leaving Bethlehem in droves—only Christians are.

While a number of dynamics certainly come into play, there can be no denying that the most obvious differentiating factor between the two populations is religion. This begs the question: could the flock of Bethlehem’s faithful be scattering for the same reason that their Christian brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq are scattering? And if so, shouldn’t the Islamist regime ruling Bethlehem be considered for the role of scapegoat?

Bread or Meat?    

The modern-day town of Bethlehem

Located about 6.2 miles (10 km) south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem (Bet Lehem or “House of Bread” in Hebrew and Bet Lahm or “House of Meat” in Arabic) has seen more than its fair share of rulers. Over the past century alone, Turkish, British, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian forces have marched in and out of the city. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel reclaimed Judea and Samaria from the occupying Hashemite Kingdom, and the descendents of Ruth and her great-grandson David returned to the hometown of Israel’s famous shepherd king, who once watched over his father’s sheep and penned his psalms in the fields of Bethlehem.

Under Israeli rule, Christianity flourished and the population grew, Arutz Sheva reports. However, the Oslo Accords—a desperate but doomed quest for peace—listed the House of Bread as one of the cities where the Palestinians would be granted full authority. At the time, Bethlehem’s Christian mayor, Elias Freij, pleaded with Israel to retain Bethlehem, fearing his Christian brothers and sisters’ future under the Palestinian Authority (PA). Yet the die was cast. Bethlehem and its Christian flock were handed over to a Palestinian ruler for the first time in history in 1995.

In the 24 years since, Freij’s fears have proven justified. When the Palestinian rulers marched into the birthplace of Jesus (Yeshua), Christians comprised 80% of Bethlehem and the surrounding villages’ population. Today, the followers of Jesus have dwindled to a paltry 16%.

Which god?

Islam is the official religion of the PA. While the PA powers-that-be work hard to portray a public image of religious tolerance and equality, the reality is often very different. Islam has long since viewed Christians as dhimmi, a tolerated people considered second-class to their superior Muslim neighbors.

While the PA’s public persona says Christians have “liberty and freedom to worship,” there is no law that protects religious freedom. Moreover, a statement by the Information Ministry proclaims: “The Palestinian people are also governed by [Islamic] Shari’a law…with regard to…religious matters. According to Shari’a Law…any Muslim who [converts] or declares becoming an unbeliever is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment…the [PA] cannot take a different position on this matter.”

Christians also don’t enjoy equal protection under the PA judicial system and face persecution from security forces, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) explains. The JCPA and other sources offer a long list of PA-orchestrated attacks and assaults on Christians, including Palestinian policemen shooting Christian Arabs, covering up incidents of violence, silencing victims with threats of more violence, muzzling the media, tapping phones, paying threatening house calls, arresting and detaining converts to Christianity and firebombing churches and Christian holy sites. In fact, the PA’s treatment of its Christian population over the past 24 years has earned it the 49th spot on Open Doors’ World Watch List of Christian Persecution.

Judenrein and Christian-free?

The evidence that points to the PA’s culpability in the mass exodus of Bethlehem’s faithful begs the question: why are Palestinian Christians silent about the source of their suffering? In fact, why do many point a finger at Israel instead of ousting the PA? Perhaps the answer is rather simple.

To write this article, I approached two Bethlehem Christians for an interview about life under the PA. Both refused, stating that their Palestinian rulers don’t deal kindly with those who expose the “liberty and freedom to worship” public relations spiel. Blaming Israel—or simply remaining mum—makes for a safer, simpler life in PA-ruled Bethlehem.

In the 24 years since Bethlehem was handed over to a Palestinian ruler for the first time in history, the little town became judenrein (free from Jews). Today, neither David nor Jesus would be welcome in their birthplace. Moreover, the Christian population plummeted from 80% to 16%—while the Muslim population grew. Perhaps it’s time that international journalists, politicians and human rights activists quit bashing Israel and start holding the PA responsible for its part. Unless they do, the little town of Bethlehem may soon be judenrein and Christian-free.

Photo Credit: Yu Matsuda/bridgesforpeace.com

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