Friday, December 28, 2007

Walking With Fear in the Holy Land

Much thanks to Bill Samsonoff for this article. Please pray for the Christians in the Holy Land this Nativity season!

12/27/2007
Walking With Fear In The Holiest Of Lands
By: David Bedein - 12/27/07 , The Bulletin

Bethlehem - On a crisp sunny day, Jerusalem's
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah was preparing for
the Christmas Eve midnight mass that has been
held every year for centuries in the holiest
Christian site on earth - the Church of Nativity
in Bethlehem, identified by Christians around the
world as the site of the birthplace of Jesus.

At midday, surrounded by 10,000 onlookers in
Nativity Square, he walked solemnly in a red robe
behind a group of Catholic priests and a marching band.

Just steps from the church, a loudspeaker from a
nearby mosque brought the procession to a halt.
The broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer from
the mosque's speakers silenced the cheering
crowd, and marching band. "Allah Hu Akbar," or
"Allah is the mighty God," the speakers crackled
throughout the hilled valley. Even in this land
where spirituality seems to emanate from every
corner of the earth, the moment seemed awkward.
For many, it brought back a painful reminder of
Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to Bethlehem in
March of 2000, when a similar Muslim call to
prayer interrupted a Papal mass for seven minutes.

"They don't respect us," explained Peter, a Greek
Orthodox Christian whose family's Bethlehem roots
trace back about 2,000 years. "They put on the
loudspeakers at that moment to remind people that
Islam is the religion of Bethlehem. And it is
sad, because now the city of Jesus is the city of Mohammed."

For centuries, Christians were the majority in
Bethlehem, but in recent decades the Palestinian
Authority - the autonomous political organization
run by the PLO - has taken steps to make Muslims
the majority. In the early '90s, then-Palestinian
President Yasser Arafat expanded the district's
boundaries, and included nearby Palestinian
refugee camps with large Islamic populations.
Arafat also built new Muslim neighborhoods
opposite the birthplace of Jesus, and instilled a
Muslim governor to oversee the area. He also
encouraged the building of new mosques - in 1970,
just five existed in Bethlehem; in 1993, 67
existed; by 2005, the number of mosques in Bethlehem
had grown to 87.

As the Islamic population has grown in the city,
Christians have seen their numbers drop
precipitously. According to census reports, the
city was half-Christian in 1973; in 1990, just 37
percent of Bethlehem was Christian. Today, just
16 percent of the city is Christian, with
different families leaving each week, mostly for
the US, Canada and Central America. As the
Christian population decreased, Palestinian
Muslims have flocked to the city, forming a solid
majority. The turning point of Muslim control of
the city came in 2006, when seven Islamic
fundamentalists - representing Hamas and Islamic
Jihad - were elected to the 15 member board. That
board - which controls the city - consists of just
three Christians.

Christians say a growing Islamic fundamentalism
that sees Christianity as a second-rate religion
is one of the major reasons for their flight.
Long time Christian residents also complain about
having to pay blackmail to government-affiliat ed
gangs to keep their land, homes and businesses.
Sometimes, even when they pay, land has been
taken and people have been violently beaten.

Christians say they can only walk safely in
certain sections of the town, and they also avoid
the main market which is now Muslim-only. Women
are particularly careful to plan their shopping,
and complain of daily sexual harassment by Muslim
men. Christians also fear for their gold and
silver crosses and crucifixes, and say they are
frequently ripped from their necks in public.

"We don't have any hope left in this city, our
dream is to emigrate," explained George, a
Bethlehem Christian attorney. "The choice is to
have a gang, and to keep a weapon in every house
or to bend our heads, give up our dignity and become sheep."

The threats and intimidation have not been
limited to just Bethlehem's Christians and have
spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In
Gaza, the tiny Christian community of 2,000 was
rocked by the murder of Rami Ayyad, a Palestinian
Bible Society teacher who was stabbed and shot by
Islamic extremists in October. Ayyad, who left
behind a pregnant wife and two children, was found
near a Christian book shop.

Also, in October, an American-born
Palestinian- Christian was forced to leave
Ramallah and to return to his native Alabama
after being repeatedly threatened by Fatah
military officials. Isa Bajalia, a Christian
cleric who heads Middle East Missions in
Ramallah, was approached over the summer by
militants who demanded a $30,000 cash payment
along with the deed to his family's property.

"They told me that if I didn't do what they
wanted they could get me no matter - whether if I
was in the [United] States or here. They said to
me we will break your arms and legs," said Bajalia.

After months of daily threats, Bajalia fled to the US,
fearing for his life.

Christian suffering

Although world television reports focused on the
masses gathering in Nativity Square on Christmas
Eve and Christmas day, Bethlehem's Christians say
the reports were superficial and shade the real
truth of their day to day lives.

Just seven years ago, tens of thousands of
tourists and Christians from all over the world
poured into Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas and
to attend open-air masses. On Christmas Eve, just
6,000 Christian tourists came to Bethlehem.

At the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance of the
city, it took seconds to pass through Israeli
security. Just inside the city, restaurants that
had been filled on previous Christmas holidays
were empty or closed altogether. Around a small
table, seven local Christian men ate peanuts and
chocolates. All sipped whiskey - a rare public
site in this increasingly Islamic city where
Islamic law is unofficially enforced by local gangs.

The men said they did not want to discuss
politics, or their lives as Christians. The men
smiled, and shrugged their shoulders. "We are not
talking about politics," one man said after a long pause.

On the way to Manger Square the only reminder of
the Christmas holiday was a dusty, inflatable
Santa Claus that sat in front of a variety store.
Palestinian flags decorated the streets, along
with posters of a Palestinian who was killed after
attacking Israelis.

Few tourists were in any of the stores, and the
streets were filled with Palestinian police who held
Kalashnikov rifles.

At Manger Square, Bethlehem's Christians
celebrated their holiday by dressing in their
best clothes, and preparing to attend the
midnight mass. The Christian men wore new suits,
slacks and shoes; the women wore dresses, skirts,
jeans and makeup. For women, Christmas would be
the only day of the year they could dress like
Westerners in their home city. Beginning Dec. 26,
Islamic fundamentalists prohibit Christian women
from wearing short skirts publicly, and there is
a growing pressure for the women to cover their
hair and the rest of their bodies like Muslim women.

The gathering was not solely a Christian event.
In 1996, the Palestinian Authority declared
Christmas as a national holiday and began to
downplay the Christian origins of the day. As a
result, Bethlehem's Palestinian Muslims also
jammed the square, and were joined by Muslims
from Hebron, Jenin, and the nearby populated
refugee camps, who stayed in the once-Christian square
late into the evening.

"I wouldn't dare take my wife and my children to
the square at night. I don't want the Moslems to
harass them," said Kondo, a local merchant. "Ten
years ago all the Christians rejoiced, and choirs
from all over the world were singing; it was a real
happy evening."

Publicly Christians will not talk about their
plight in this city, and many fear for their
lives. Christians say Muslims have targeted them
for a least a decade; many have been publicly
attacked and hospitalized; many say that small
arguments often lead to violent attacks from mobs
of Muslims.

Even in their homes they spoke in hushed tones.

"The future here is very black," said Suhell, a
60-year-old Christian merchant who sat near his
Christmas tree on the holiday, and sipped coffee
with his sons Peter and Matthew.

Peter and Matthew, who are both in their 20s, say
their only hope is to emigrate. The two say they
face a life of daily humiliation as Christians by
their Muslim neighbors.

While they have both been attacked by Muslim mobs
in the past, the brothers say they're even
angrier about how the birthplace of Jesus - the
Church of the Nativity - is treated by local
Muslims. In the spring of 2002, Palestinian
gunmen loyal to Arafat's forces held more than100
people hostage, and took over the church for
three weeks. Using the church as a fortress, the
gunmen used pages of its holy bibles for toilet
paper, emptied the charity boxes, and also stole
gold and silver icons that had been part of the
church for centuries. They also set a section of
the church on fire.

On Christmas Eve, Muslims also came to the
church. During the mass, Peter and Matthew
noticed a group of Muslims smoking cigarettes
while sitting on the church floor.

"It made us very angry," Matthew said bitterly.
"Why can't the Muslims honor and respect our holy place?"

©The Evening Bulletin 2007

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