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Another Christmas under siege

Fr. Faisal Hijazin


Trails of an Israeli F16 warplane are seen in the sky over the Church of the Nativity,believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during the traditional annual lighting ceremony of the main Christmas tree in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 15, 2010, ten days before the Christmas. [MaanImages/Luay Sababa]

Ma'an , December 22, 2010

The heart of Bethlehem is not the Church of the Nativity, the Franciscan Saint Catherine’s Catholic Church or Manger Square, nor the many other places of worship found in this holy city. It is not Rachel’s tomb, now surrounded by a curtain of iron and cement built to sever it from Bethlehem.

Rather, in truth, the heart of Bethlehem is the community of believers that, by its presence, has kept the birthplace of Jesus tended, remembered and venerated since the time that Our Savior appeared on earth, born of a virgin, to save us from our sins. During all these centuries, Bethlehem has remained a Christian community.

This Christmas, Christians around the world will be singing such Christmas Carols as "O Little Town of Bethlehem" without knowing that in truth, they could soon be singing of a town where you can no longer find the living presence of Christ, the community of those baptized into his body, the Church; "O Lost Town of Bethlehem" could be a more accurate sentiment when Christians awake to find that the Christian presence in this small holy city has, after 2,000 years, come to an end.

The fact is that this is a community that has been suffocating under military occupation, and all the restriction of liberty – particularly separation from family living very short distances away due to the "Wall of Separation" - that this subjection to arbitrary regulations and threat of imminent violence carries with it. The prolongation, decade after decade, of these circumstances, means that Christians are leaving their beloved city to seek places where they can raise their families where they can live, work and pray with the dignity of human beings. This is perhaps an accusation of our failure to willingly suffer all things in Christ. Though our faith has sustained us for many years, yet, failing to see change coming, many, and ever more, opt for places that offer brighter futures.

The hardships of the political situation have severely reduced the Christian population. Certainly, there are some voices in the international press who present this flight as a result of Islamic persecution. This is false. While of course the Christian community of Palestine has problems due to its minority status, as happens to minority populations virtually everywhere, still careful polling of emigrating Christians clearly demonstrates that the primary reason for leaving is the condition of living under the heavy thumb of the military occupation, without rights, of the Israeli government. This is a situation that, in one form or another, has gone on for 62 years.

I have been a priest in this region for 25 years and have visited Christians in Israeli prisons, participated in funerals of Christian who have fallen under Israeli bullets and bombs, sought to aid Christian families who have been cruelly divided by the Israeli policy of stripping residency rights for Palestinians, forcing their removal, and even lobbied for Christians to have their property returned after its being confiscated by Israel in order to expand its illegal settlements around Bethlehem.

It has not always been easy to control my own anger, let alone counsel forgiveness to the suffering and bereaved. Some have been able to hear Christ’s words of comfort. Others think of flight. Israel makes no distinction whatsoever between Christians and Muslims. The glaring fact is that the Israelis want the Palestinian land, but do want the Palestinians, the people who have lived there for thousands of years. And, without restrictions on their power, they act accordingly.

While we desire to understand the heart of every man, even our persecutors and oppressors, and desire to speak words of peace and reconciliation to them, yet, perhaps from a weakness in our faith or perhaps an arrogance born of power on their part, we do not seem to have made much of an impact in this way. In 2009 a group of lay people and clergy from the Christian community including myself released the Kairos document in which we tried to tell the world what is happening here. It was a call for justice, understanding and peace. We received much support for our statement, but there is much more to do.

Today, we see the two neighboring cities, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, divided for the first time in history. Draconian limits to freedom of movement have strained family, social and economic connections to the breaking point. Couples from across the wall who want to marry must divide themselves from one of their families or each other, since it is all but impossible for the one living beyond the wall to get permission to live with the spouse on the Israeli side. Palestinians wanting to visit their holy sites as they have for many centuries, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, need hard to obtain Israeli-issued permits. Pilgrims wanting to visit Bethlehem must often pass through arduous procedures at Israeli check points. And the inconvenience has meant that the many pilgrims who do make it to Bethlehem are bused in and out, and spend no time with our people on our friendly streets.

There are people who suffer more in the world. We, like all of God’s children, have much to be thankful for. We join our brothers and sisters in Christ in offering praise. But it is not easy to cast out the shadow in our hearts when we think of what has become of our little town of Bethlehem, so much a Christian symbol, to us even more than to others.

Christians here too are discouraged when they see that many of their brothers and sisters in Christ from the United States actively support the policies that are emptying the land of Christ from its Christian population. They feel rejected by their own. Would it be not more fitting in the name of the Prince of Peace to call for justice and equality for all? If Christians are friends of Israel, do not friends urge their friends towards virtue? If they do not, are they indeed friends?

Our Savior has come to shine his light upon those dwelling in the darkness. May this Christmas enlighten all of our hearts and let that light illumine every dark place, especially those under persecution. May he strengthen us in hope, and unite us in preparing his coming again by works of peace. May this unity give hope to the Christians of the Holy Land, so that the Body of Christ, His Church may find a way to continue in the Lands sanctified by his earthly ministry.

Father Dr. Faisal Hijazin is the Parish Priest of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Ramallah.

:: Article nr. 73157 sent on 22-dec-2010 22:34 ECT


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