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-affiliated 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.
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 December 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?”