Bethlehem – In a small house just yards from the Church of the Nativity, a middle-aged man sat in silence and sipped tea. Jonathan, who is 65, traces his family’s roots in Bethlehem back more than 2,000 years. He is a member of one of the oldest Christian families in the city.
As he held the teacup, a voice from a loudspeaker near the Mosque of Omar – located opposite the Church of the Nativity – cut through the silence. “Allah Hu Akbar,” or “Allah is the mighty God,” the voice chanted in Arabic.
Jonathan’s hands shook and he began to speak.
“It makes me nervous,” he said, turning toward the back of the kitchen and pointing in the direction of the mosque.
As Christians, Jonathan and his son Peter say they have good reason to be nervous about their Muslim neighbors. They say that over the last 20 years relations between the two religious groups have deteriorated, with Christians subjected to daily intimidation and humiliation by Muslims.
“Nobody knows about our situation here in Bethlehem, but a lot of things are happening here that is making our lives unbearable,” Jonathan said.
The men say that for more than a decade, the Palestinian Authority has demanded blackmail money from Christian businessmen and families, and over the last two years has taken land from several Christian families without compensating them. They also say they are unsafe on their streets and are ostracized and subjected to vicious beatings by Muslims just because they are Christians. In addition, they say Bethlehem’s Muslims regularly sexually harass women and young girls, and sometimes force them to convert and marry Muslims.
“We are a miserable people now,” said Jonathan, who stands just over five feet and is white-haired with a mustache.
The fear that has swept over the tiny Christian community has caused Christians to leave in droves each year for the last two decades. When Jonathan was born in 1942, the city’s Christians were the majority population. “Relations between Christians and Moslems were good then; it was a quiet city, there was no violence and no fundamentalism,” said Jonathan.
Up until 1972, the Christian population held a majority in Bethlehem. That year, just five mosques were in the city. Today, there are around 90 mosques in Bethlehem, and just 16 percent of Bethlehem is Christian.
In the 1980s, Muslims began to move into the city in large numbers and build additional mosques. At that time Islamic fundamentalism also began to flourish in the city, with radicals gaining a foothold into the political and social structure of the city. By the mid-90s, the district’s borders expanded, and former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat allowed new Muslim neighborhoods to be built downtown, near Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Also, at that time, Arafat removed a Christian as the district’s governor, and replaced him with a Muslim appointee.
By 1991, said Jonathan, Muslims began to preach anti-Christian teachings in mosques, with religious clerics delivering anti-Christian sermons over mosque loudspeakers. “They said the Christians are criminals; they collaborated with the Jews. They also talked about Christian girls on the loudspeakers; they said they dressed improperly and drank alcohol, and that Christians didn’t believe in God. They said only the religion of Moslems, and Mohammed is the true religion, and all the others are false.”
The public accusations sent shockwaves through the community, and a local bishop unsuccessfully tried to create a dialogue with Moslem leaders. The Christian mayor at the time was powerless to act against the fundamentalists.
By 1992, Christians began to avoid shopping in the downtown market, just steps away from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. They also had to watch out for angry mobs of Muslims intent on beating, and sometimes maiming, local Christians.
Seven years ago, Jonathan’s son Peter was preparing to go to church with two friends. As the three Christians stood outside of Peter’s home, they were approached by seven Muslims who swore at them for wearing crucifixes. Soon the three were surrounded by a mob that had grown to more than 100 angry men.
“The group began to chant ‘Allah Akbar’ and then started to beat us,” Peter remembered. As the three lay on the ground unable to move, they were repeatedly punched, kicked and beaten with sticks. One of Peter’s friends had a crucifix ripped from his neck, and later learned that it was sold in a local market.
The Palestinian Authority police arrived 15 minutes after the attack, and the men were hospitalized.
“The police didn’t help us. They didn’t arrest anybody. I am lucky I am alive,” said Peter.
That year, Muslim attacks against Christians became more frequent, and turned deadly. In 2001, Atif Abayat, who formerly served as a commander of Arafat’s Tanzim military division, tried to rape two Christian teenage sisters who lived in Beit Jallah. When they refused his advances, he killed both.
In 2002, Mohammed Abayat, another commander of Arafat’s Al Aksa Brigades, raped a Christian woman in Beit Sahur.
While the men did not deny the charges, they were never arrested by Palestinian police.
Also in 2002, a Bethlehem Christian who had been paying blackmail money to the Palestinian Authority for several years decided he would no longer pay the bribes. After having refused, he was found dead. Local Christians say he was killed by the Palestinian military. “They threatened him many times and they killed him,” said Jonathan.
Last year, a Bethlehem Christian was arrested and faced charges of raping a Palestinian boy. Charges were dropped after DNA revealed that the boy had not been molested.
“They wanted money,” said Peter, who regularly attends the restaurant owned by the man that was accused of rape. The night of the alleged attack, the boy entered the eatery, and asked the man for money. When he declined, the boy went home and fabricated the story. Within minutes, a mob of angry Muslims came back and destroyed the restaurant.
While sexual harassment is a frequent complaint by Christian women, more and more of the women are being targeted for conversion by Moslem men. Six months ago, a 17-year-old Christian Palestinian-American girl was found in a village near Hebron after she was allegedly kidnapped from her Bethlehem home. Muslims, however, say she agreed to come. After her family and Catholic priest located her, she was found garbed in a hijab – a Moslem head covering – and told her family that she had converted to Islam. When her family tried to remove her from the house, they were met with armed resistance.
“It was a real war,” says Faise Omar, the father of the man who brought the girl to the village. “There was a lot of shooting from both sides but I had a lot of weapons and they didn’t come close to my side. All of the [nearby] refugee camp came to our aid and fought against them. It was not just a war over the couple. It was a war between Muslims and Christians.”
After a representative of the American Consulate intervened, the girl left the village and flew to the US. She recently married a Christian man and now lives in Jerusalem.
Omar said the real reason why the woman was released was that he didn’t want his son to marry a Christian.
These stories, and the day-to-day hardships they face as Christians, make Jonathan and Peter want to leave their home town.
“If I have a chance to go anywhere I will go,” said Jonathan, who wants to sell his house and move to the United States or Central America. “The problem is, even if I try to sell my house, who will buy it?”
Peter, who never thought he would contemplate leaving Bethlehem, now dreams of moving to the US – where his sister lives. Out of the 15 students in his high school class from 1997, more than half have left the city. Between 2001 and 2004, 3,000 Christians emigrated from Bethlehem, and during the last six months 300 have left.
“Our life here is finished,” says Peter. “One day we will come back and find only churches here and no Christians.”
FOR PUBLICATION: JANUARY 3RD, 2008
Sixty years ago, when Jordan occupied Bethlehem after the 1948 war, 80% of Bethelem’s population was Christian. At the time, a respected bishop gathered his parishioners together and announced, “A day will come when you will visit this city as a pilgrim because there will be no more Christians left in the city.”
That vision has turned into a prophecy, explained Shibley Kando, who owns one of the biggest Christian souvenir stores in Bethlehem.
“Now we are only 16 percent of the population. Every year the number is declining, what does the future look like? We don’t know. This is the reality of our life. Thank God we are still living here.”
Over the last two decades, life has become increasingly difficult for the tiny Christian community of Bethlehem. Christians here say they face daily threats and intimidation by their Muslim neighbors. Blackmail and land theft by Muslims tied to the Palestinian Authority is common here, they say. In addition, Christians say they are subject to anti-Christian verbal abuse and attacks from Muslims.
A 2007 religious freedom report on Israel and West Bank and Gaza, issued by the US Department of State, confirmed the allegations. The report stated, “The Palestinian Authority has not taken sufficient action to remedy past harassment and intimidation of Christian residents of Bethlehem by the city’s Muslim majority. The PA judiciary failed to adjudicate numerous cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. PA officials appear to have been complicit in property extortion of Palestinian Christian residents, as there were reports of PA security forces and judicial officials colluding with gang members in property extortion schemes. Several attacks against Christians in Bethlehem went unaddressed by the PA.”
This has led to a Christian exodus from the city – from 2001 to 2004, 3,000 Christians left the city for the US, Canada, Europe, Central America and South America. Jonathan, a lay leader at the Church of the Nativity, said that 300 Christians from Bethlehem have moved.
Palestinian Christians from abroad have risen to high political status in many countries. According to a Palestinian Authority census, 148,000 Christians with ties to Bethlehem live in Central America and South America. In El Salvador, the president is Tony Saca Gonzalez, whose family left Bethlehem last century; in Honduras, Carlos Roberto Flores, whose mother came from Bethlehem, served as a Palestinian official from 1998 to 2002.
Kando, a tall man in his early 40s, plans to stay – at least for now. Many of his friends have moved abroad, and just five out of his 28 high school classmates are still in Bethlehem. A lawlessness, and lack of justice, has spread throughout the city, he said.
“Life here is not easy. The Palestinian Authority is not providing enough law and order. Palestinian Authority police are loyal, first to their friends and family. If you have a disagreement with a person, and that person’s brother is a policeman, then the policeman will be loyal to his brother first,” said Kando.
These days, Bethlehem’s dusty streets and sidewalks are empty much of the time. Just 6,000 tourists came for Christmas – down from the more prosperous days in the mid-90s when Palestinians and Israelis first made peace. At that time, 20,000 to 30,000 tourists would visit during the holiday, and restaurants, gift shops, and churches were full.
Bethlehem’s economy, which is almost entirely dependent on tourism, has been hard hit in recent years. On Christmas day, parts of the city seemed like a ghost town. And many of the Christians who still live here stayed inside their home to celebrate the holiday. In past years, they would have spent much of their time with friends and family celebrating at Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity. Since the Palestinian Authority made Christmas an official national holiday in 1996, local Christians say the real meaning of their holiday has taken a backseat to the Muslim festivities which now take place opposite the site where Jesus was born.
“We worship on Christmas but Muslims think that the holiday is like Carnival in Brazil,” explained William Kando, a cousin of Shibley, who also lives in Bethlehem. Thousands of Muslims from nearby cities, like Hebron, now flock to the city to do things they can’t do in their own village, said Kando, such as drinking alcohol and looking at Christian women who do not wear hijabs, or head coverings. A decade ago, before the Palestinian Authority took control over the city from Israel, the Kandos say Christmas was a much happier time.
“Until 1993, the Israelis put up checkpoints at the entrance to the Nativity Square and Manger Square, and only Christians were allowed there,” said William. “Today, if you want to go to Manger Square on Christmas Eve, you have to go with a bodyguard because 98 percent of the people are Muslims.”
Christians say they have limited access to the squares near the birthplace of Jesus, and they also say it is dangerous to walk or shop in the city’s main market, just yards from the squares. Many say they have had their crosses and crucifixes ripped from their necks from gangs who resell them to Muslim merchants.
Christians still can pray at the church but no longer spend time outside fraternizing. Many are upset that the area is off-limits much of the time to Christians. Muslims use the square for their own political activities. For example, last January the Muslims set up a tent to protest against an Israeli archaeological dig in Jerusalem. Muslims also use the area for sports, and in fact, during the summer the square opposite the Church of the Nativity is turned into a soccer field by Muslims.
“They use the door of the Church of the Nativity as their goal,” said Peter, 28, a Christian TV producer who hopes to move to the US soon. “They have no respect for our religion. If we did this at a mosque they would kill us.”
“The 24th of December is the worst and saddest day in Bethlehem,” said Shibley Kando. “The joy and the happiness that we once had does not exist anymore. They took us out of the celebration.”
The day is particularly difficult for Christian women and girls who celebrate the holiday publicly. Sexual harassment by Muslims against the women and girls is a daily occurrence, they say, but it reaches a peak on Christmas eve when thousands of Muslims jam the squares near the church.
“My friends’ daughter got home after the midnight mass and saw that she had red blotches all over her body. They were from the Muslim men who pinched her, and she couldn’t do anything to stop them,” said William Kando.
As their population has diminished, their political clout has fallen. While Palestinian law still dictates that the city’s mayor must be a Christian, just three Christians – including the mayor – sit on the council that runs the city. For the first time in the city’s history, the council has a strong coalition led by Islamic fundamentalists – five of the members belong to Hamas, one to Islamic Jihad, and six are Fatah representatives.
Even before the 2007 elections the Palestinian Authority granted Hamas permission to build its largest center in the West Bank just one-half mile from Jesus’s birthplace. The nine-story building can be seen throughout the city, and is crowned by golden-domed mosques on its top floor. The building also contains a madrassa for Muslims to study sharia – Islamic law -, a children’s school, Hamas’ administrative offices, and a senior center.
As their power has diminished, Christmas decorations have become scarce in the city. In the downtown area there were some illuminated stars and some Christmas trees near the Church of the Nativity, but for the most part just Palestinian flags hung down from street lights.
While Christians plot their steps before they travel throughout the city, and sometimes do not openly display their crosses and crucifixes in public, the opposite is true for Muslims. On the day after Christmas, a middle aged Muslim man spread a small rug on a sidewalk near the church, dropped to his knees and prayed as bystanders walked around him.
While the holiday is not the same as it once was for Christians, they still show their solidarity on the day before Christmas, when Christian youth marching bands from Bethlehem and other nearby villages parade through the downtown streets dressed in the boy and girl scout uniforms. Many carry flags and hold banners from their organizations.
The scout groups are organized by church leaders throughout the city and represent several denominations, including, Latin, Anglican, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox.
Every church has its own private school, managed and subsidized by religious organizations from Europe and the US.
“Our children do not attend public school. In public schools here they focus on teaching Islam, and it’s not an option for the kids. Children must study Islam in the public schools,” said Shibley Kando. “Also, in our Christian schools, the level of education is higher and we prefer this education for our children. That’s why wealthy Muslims send their kids to our schools. And we teach Islam to their children.”
©The Bulletin 2008