December 18, 2018

Christmas crusade for peace (and an independent Palestine) in Bethlehem

This story originally appeared on

A light with stars and snowflake Christmas lights, every year the city of Bethlehem, which is known as the birthplace of both Jesus and Christianity, hosts a series of Christmas celebrations. From parades and lighting a Christmas tree almost as big as the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City, to restoring mosaics at the famous Church of Nativity, the city is looking to promote itself and to strengthen the Christian community. 

Palestinian officials say Christmas celebrations are a chance to show the world that the Palestinians can govern themselves and to encourage others to support a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Of course it is in our interest to have a two-state solution,” said Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See. “Here in Palestine, we are working to consolidate and to strengthen the roots of Christianity in Palestine.” 

According to Kassissieh, while about half of the residents of Bethlehem are Christian, only about 2 percent of all Palestinians in the West Bank are Christian. Promoting and strengthening the religion, however, is one of the top priorities of the Palestinian Authority, he said.  

Given the current political instability in the Middle East with the ongoing civil war in Syria and the armed conflict between ISIS and Iraqi forces in trying to retake Mosul, the region is losing many of its churches and connections to Christianity. Bethlehem is promoting itself as a defender of peace and stability. 

“Politics here are so multilayered,” said Ian Knowles, a Christian icon painter and the director of the Icon School in Bethlehem. “And Palestine, especially Bethlehem, is right on the fault line between many of these different forces.” 

The Icon School, which is affiliated with the Princess School of Traditional Art in London, teaches local and international students the technique and importance of icon painting. It is the only icon school in the Middle East. 

“Bethlehem is the place where, for Christians, matter suddenly matters,” Knowles said. “God becomes a little baby, he becomes part of the material world, and so what you can see becomes graced and full of something deeply spiritual.” 

The school has a dozen local Palestinian students. 

“It’s an art which is inherently hope-filled and hopeful,” Knowles said. 

Aside from promoting Christianity through religiously motivated artistic endeavors, the city also has generated both financial and political support from the international community in restoring and renovating the Church of Nativity in the Old City of Bethlehem. 

Built in the year 332, the church, which Christians believe is the actual birthplace of Jesus, was falling apart, especially with bad leaks in the roof. 

In 2009, after lengthy negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Franciscan Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree calling for renovations to the Church of Nativity. 

The Palestinian government raised money to cover some of the expenses of the renovations; however, the work could not have been accomplished without financial support from many European and other Middle Eastern churches and countries. Spain, France, Hungary, Russia, Italy, Greece and even Morocco and Kuwait all contributed to the restoration. The total cost of restoring the church is just under $20 million and the work is expected to be completed in 2019. 

“We are supporting the Christian presence here in Palestine and in the Holy Land not only by preserving the Palestinian Christians but also by preserving and renovating their churches,” said Minister Ziad Al-Bandak, an adviser to Abbas. “Palestinians, in general, are for the two-state solution.” 

In accordance with the negotiations, the Holy See recognizes the state of Palestine based on the borders from 1967, which are the borders established after the Six-Day War, and, in return, the Palestinian leadership gives the Catholic Church full autonomy in the area, according to Kassissieh. 

Christmas is fast approaching. According to Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, the city will have a procession of the patriarchs, a celebration before the Catholic midnight Mass on Christmas, a Christmas market and a number of plays and exhibitions showcasing the holiday spirit.  

Recently, the city, along with two international choirs and thousands of other visitors, lit the Christmas tree. 

“We lit the tree with a golden color because our message of Bethlehem is written with a golden font — it never rusts,” Baboun said. “The justice of the Palestinian cause is written with a golden font because it can and it will never rust.” 

The city of Bethlehem, only about 20 minutes from the city center of Jerusalem, is located in Area A of the West Bank, meaning it is under complete Palestinian civil and military control. Yet, residents say, they do not really have complete control, as Israel built a controversial barrier, which local residents call a “wall,” around the city, cutting it off from much of the West Bank.

Palestinian officials say the surrounding Jewish communities, which they call “settlements,” have led to a high unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, according to Samir Hazboun, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. It also has led thousands of residents, many of them Christians, to leave the city and emigrate abroad.

Khalil Shoka, a Palestinian historian, said, “The younger generations are looking for a brighter future and they don’t find it here due to the impact of the separation wall and the Israeli policies, so most of them prefer to leave.”