O Little Town of Bethlehem

Soon we shall be arranging Christmas crib scenes in our churches and maybe in our homes. Soon we shall be singing Carols, and Christmas Eve will be upon us, with its special moment of interruption in the general business of the evening, when the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge entrances us with its beauty. Always the same beginning – in my memory anyway – the clear haunting beauty of a choirboy’s voice singing the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. We are transported into something beyond mince pie making and wrapping paper and we tell ourselves that now at last we are getting close to the real meaning of Christmas.

separation-wall-palestine-1316But perhaps the real meaning of Christmas is about grappling with the reality of what modern day Bethlehem is really like, for the Incarnation is nothing if it is not about entering into the real world with all its painful contradictions and all its sin. Perhaps the best kind of crib image to put up in our home is one where the Separation Wall runs right down the middle, separating the Holy Family from shepherds and wise men alike.

For Bethlehem, with its surrounding villages and the adjacent small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, is fragmented and isolated. It is located within the Occupied Palestinian Territory and is home to around 180,000. 67% of the population is Muslim but there is a sizeable Christian minority of around 33% - all the main Christian denominations being represented. There are about 20,000 living in three refugee camps. These are people who have been displaced from their homes when the Israeli state was created in 1948 as well as others displaced in 1967 and 1972.

“How still we see thee lie”. No, there is little stillness. Much overcrowding; frequent house demolitions; much standing around in queues at checkpoints. The Separation Wall now all but encircles Bethlehem, separating farmers from their land and residents from Jerusalem and access to the Holy sites there. Colonies of houses for Israeli Jews are built frantically through the night on stolen Palestinian land. No, there is no stillness.israeli-soldiers-edit

“Above thy sweet and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by”. Yes, but so do the military trucks, the ambulances, the soldiers on patrol, the sounds of gunshot.

But there are also signs of hope – not in the possibility of an end to all these injustices any time soon but in the wonderful steadfastness, endurance and patient suffering of those who embrace the concept of “sumud”, the quiet determination to remain and, despite everything, to refuse to be enemies with the oppressor.

Banksy in Bethlehem editSigns of hope too in the international support given to Palestinian farmers – planting olive trees and helping to harvest their olives. Signs of hope in the international groups that go and build new homes for Palestinian families who have had their homes demolished.

A particular sign of hope can be found in Bethlehem University, a Christian institution founded in 1973 by Pope Paul VI. It endeavours to provide opportunities for students to acquire the skills and attitudes they need to live as fully as they can, given the circumstance of the Occupation by which they are surrounded. It is an oasis of peace amidst the harshness of life under occupation, keeping hope alive and showing that Christians and Muslims can study and work together, consolidating their shared identity as Palestinian people.

I had the privilege of visiting the University earlier this year and listening to students read from their degree dissertations in the Department of Micro Biology. I also visited the Palestinian Museum, a part of the University, another oasis of peace where students are encouraged to treasure and conserve the flora and fauna of Palestine and to try to protect it from the ongoing destruction by the Israeli settlers’ road building schemes. Both the Department and the Museum are run by Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh and I treasure the moment when we leant over the edge of the newly built pond to watch bees from their beehives drink. (Sadly, the bees have been badly affected by tear gas used against demonstrators in Bethlehem a few months ago.)cross-in-bethlehem-1177711

Anyone who feels that they want to try to support the tiny 2% of the total population of Palestine who are Christian as well as trying to bring the Occupation to an end for all Palestinians, may like to know of the newly formed branch of Kairos in Bristol. We are Christians and people of other faiths, who are praying and working to do our small part to bring justice and, ultimately peace to the land of the Holy One. Our next meeting will be on Wednesday, January 27th at 7pm at the URC Church, Waterford Rd., Henleaze. Lisa Saffron from Jews for Justice for the Palestinians will address us. Event listing: Click Here

And if you have time, go and see “Bethlehem Hidden From View”, where Palestinian Christians talk about their life under occupation. (Truthout Cinema, Arts house café, 108A Stokes Croft, December 7th at 6pm.) Event Listing: Click Here

Revd Sue Parfitt
Nov. 27th 2015