Christ Under Occupation: Christmas in the Holy Land 2011

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by Eileen Fleming

 

This weekend millions of cultural Christians throughout the world will flock into churches and sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and hear stories of Nazareth and Jerusalem.

Too few know the 21st century realities about the land where Jesus/AKA The Prince of Peace promised that the Peacemakers are the children of God.

The indigenous Christian population in the Holy Land has shrunk from 20% in 1948 to less than 2% in Israel and the West Bank today.

In 1970, The World Christian Database reported that the Christian population in the West Bank was 5.3% of that population and in 2011 their numbers have shrunk to half that.

Most all Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land never even visit the occupied territories or meet a Palestinian Christian for they tour with Israeli led groups and miss the reality tours conducted by organizations like SABEEL. . [Read more… 

The day is rapidly approaching when that troubled piece of real estate many claim is holy will be bereft of the most highly educated and consistently nonviolent Palestinians –the indigenous Palestinian Christians/AKA The Forgotten Faithful.

Researches predict that if things do not change very soon, Holy Land churches will be nothing more than museums for Christian communities across the region are declining due to low birth rates coupled with increasing emigration due to the persecution and violence rooted in the now 44 years of Military occupation of Palestine.





Some Christian leaders and many politicians claim the rise of radical Islam in the area is causing the decline of indigenous Christians and it does contribute, but the bigger truth is that it is religious fundamentalism within Judaism and Christianity entwined with Israeli-USA government policies versus justice and equal human rights for Palestinians that is most culpable!

In Israel, the indigenous Palestinians are labeled “Israeli-Arabs” and approximately 9% are Christian.

There are also growing numbers of Messianic Jews whose ethnicity is Jewish but they recognize Christ as the Messiah and they are supported by global Christian Zionists who profess strong support for Jewish people but are blind, deaf and dumb to their sisters and brothers in Christ: the indigenous Palestinian Christians who are a most Forgotten Faithful.

Eileen Fleming - We Are Wide Awake
Rachel's Tomb lies on the opposite of The Wall where Eileen Fleming visited in 2007, photo by Meir Vanunu.

The little town of Bethlehem is festooned with sparkling decorations but for those who know the brutal truth it is just smoke and mirrors over the military occupation of Palestine.

Nabil Giacaman, co-owner of a souvenir shop called Christmas House is a third-generation woodcarver who daily witnesses around 200 tour buses that roll in from the Israeli side of The Wall for a quick visit to the Church of the Nativity. The pilgrim-tourists are all escorted directly from the bus to the church and then back again without any time to browse the nearby shops.

Giacaman laments, “My total sales the other day were $4.13. My shop is in the middle of it all, but it gets worse every year. We have tourists, but not profits.” [1]

The decades-old political conflict aided and abetted by USA foreign policy also is an economic battle raging between Israel and the West Bank based Palestinian Authority and the livelihoods of all Palestinian merchants.

“At 1.1 million a year, the number of Christian pilgrims — those who describe their visit as chiefly spiritual in purpose — now surpasses Jewish tourism to Israel. Many of the top Christian sites are in the West Bank, and tourists have been returning in droves thanks to a recent lull in violence.

“Many Christian pilgrims belie the image of austere travelers sleeping in religious hostels. These visitors, mostly Catholics and Christian evangelicals, spend about $200 a day on hotels, restaurants and souvenirs, compared with an average of $140 for all tourists, according to Israeli figures.” [Ibid]

That would be gospel/good news for Palestinian businesspeople but the simple truth is that most all visitors to the Holy Land arrive by air in Israel and immediately join Israeli-led tours so they never get to see what is hid behind the faux-painted and extensively landscaped apartheid wall which is adorned with graffiti-against the occupation in the West Bank.

Recently, Israel’s Tourism Ministry opened a “religious affairs desk” and launched Christian-themed websites and a YouTube channel to entice them.

The Israeli government is also providing free trips for government officials and religious leaders from Latin America, Africa and Europe and in 2011, 81 members of Congress took an AIPAC political vacation and never spent an hour in occupied territory.

For Christmas, Israel is offering free bus transportation to Bethlehem for midnight Mass so that the pilgrims can avoid the lengthy wait at Israeli checkpoints. The Tourism Ministry is also promoting an alternative to Bethlehem [under the control of the Palestinian Authority] by inviting pilgrims and foreign diplomats to the Israeli city of upper Nazareth for a Christmas market which will be staffed by Israelis and no doubt supplied with goods made in the settlements-all of which are illegal under international law.

Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes, contends that Israel collects 90% of pilgrim-related revenue and said, “They are promoting occupied territory as part of Israel.” [Ibid]

The mayor of upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso refused to allow Christmas trees to be placed in his town square and told the AFP, “The request of the Arabs to put Christmas trees in the squares in the Arab quarter of Nazareth Illit is provocative. Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city and it will not happen — not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor. Nazareth is right next door and they can do what they want there.” [2]

The town’s indigenous Palestinian and Christian minority accused him of racism. A 35-year-old Christian resident of Nazareth Illit nailed it, “The racism of not putting a tree up is nothing compared to the real racism that we experience here.”

“When we asked the mayor to put up a Christmas tree in the Arab neighbourhoods of Nazareth Illit he said this is a Jewish town, not a mixed town,” said Shukri Awawdeh, a Muslim Arab member of the town council.

Awawdeh said there were 10,000 Arabs, most of them Christian in the town and there was also a large community of Christian Russian immigrants.

“We told him that decorating a tree is just to share the happiness and cheer with other people in the town,” said Awawdeh.

“People here, Jews, Christians and Muslims live in harmony, but when the mayor does something like that, it does not make things better.” [Ibid]

Last year, Israel began allowing Israeli tour guides to lead groups in Bethlehem and only Israeli approved tour guides are allowed into Israel. Legislation is also pending that will require all Jerusalem guides to be Israeli citizens.

Professor Virginia Tilley wrote:

“Just twenty years ago, Christian pilgrims could still walk to the old city of Jerusalem or Rachel’s Tomb on ancient trails laid down over five thousand years among the rocky hills of Judea, following the footpaths of prophets and disciples that wove among the springs and valleys of biblical legend. Just twenty years ago, shepherds still tended their flocks by night around the hills of Bethlehem, playing on wooden flutes. Now these sacred landscapes are paved over, blocked off, and the West Bank is an uglified mess of four-lane highways, broken up by hideous concrete barriers and electrified fences, the old olive terraces crushed and buried under acres of monolithic Jewish-only apartment blocs. The shepherds are arrested, harassed and gone. The ancient trails are gone forever. Millennia of humanity’s historical heritage, razed and effaced in a scant few decades, to serve not natural population growth but an artificial state-sponsored project to take over land in the name of an exclusive ethnic nationalism. The loss is heartbreaking on so many levels that it cannot be expressed.

“And the world’s great Churches, whose cathedrals are nested in all this? To Israeli authorities, quiet pleas, in stiff meetings behind closed doors, tactical manoeuvres to keep privileges and access. To the world, silence or token gestures, even as Israel’s construction and archaeological excavations press up against their churches’ very walls.” [3]

Maria Khoury writes from the last remaining self-sufficient Christian West Bank village of Taybeh, where they produce Holy Land olive oil and beer. Her latest email was titled:

Politics at Christmas

It’s that special time of year where you simply want to wish everyone a blessed holy Christmas celebration but I can’t help it that it’s the only chance I get to remind my friends of the horrors that are still happening where Christ was born.  Every time I travel to Boston, I simply feel I am escaping from the day-to-day misery of Israeli occupation and take a break from seeing the new illegal Israeli settlement getting bigger in front of my kitchen window in Taybeh.

By the way, Israel approved 4,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem.   These days, I cannot even get the Orthodox Churches to invite me to speak about the Christian community in the Holy Land because people don’t want to hear politics.  Although I don’t mean to be political but I am giving my life to promote a Christian presence in the very land where Christ lived, was crucified and resurrected for my salvation.

I am very sorry, I have a need to tell someone that this year, Israel, doubled up its efforts in demolitions of Palestinian property over 500 homes, wells and other structures to add to over 24,000 Palestinian homes that have been demolished since 1967. This also means displacing more than 1,000 people just in the last few months not to mention over 700,000 Palestinians who ran away at gun point to save their lives when Israel was created in 1948 creating the catastrophe of the current eight million Palestinian refugees who have no right to return to their home.

No one is paying attention to the twenty human rights organizations including Amnesty International reporting Jewish settler violence against Palestinians increased in 2011. The attacks from settlers are up 50% because maybe they are going crazy with Palestine’s effort for full UN membership and the recent admission of Palestine to UNESCO, thus over 10,000 olive trees were deliberately damaged this year alone to add to the over one million trees that have been uprooted since 1967. This is a huge destruction to Palestinian livelihood and to the mother earth.

If anyone knows Newt Gingrich personally can you please tell him that with my own eyes I have seen my late father-in-law’s birth certificate (1925) that was entitled “State of Palestine” issued under the British Mandate!

Mr. Gingrich said Palestinian people were invented.  I did not know what he means? Because before the peace talks and Oslo Peace Agreement (1993) it was forbidden to even say the word Palestine.  With my own eyes I have experienced a historic moment when I saw the Palestinian flag raised for the first time at the Friends Boys School in Ramallah in November 1996 without the students being shot at by soldiers or thrown in jail.  Also I need Newt Gingrich to know that it took two Palestinian pounds (local language called Jeneh Philestinee) to pay for the tuition at FBS (1920’s) when our uncle Hanna Khoury was a student, which was a huge financial burden for his father the local Orthodox priest in Taybeh.

Please forgive me to remind you that more hard worked tax payers’ money was sent to Israel this year because seven million dollars a day from the USA was not enough to keep up this awful occupation that includes hundreds of checkpoints and more illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  It is currently costing more than 8 million dollars a day in military aid to support what I call the 51st state and very spoiled child of the USA.  If you have an only child or an only son you might know what I mean. Parents are not supposed to have favorites but we do.  Israel has ignored more than 65 United Nation resolutions.

I am being so political that I have to keep saying the Jesus prayer every second to keep my sanity!

Please, Dear Lord, remind me that these most holy days all eyes are on Bethlehem which is a big prison with the wall surrounding it and help me stop being political because people will pray for peace.

“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born for you.”  (Luke 2:13)

We keep our hope because we believe life with Christ overpowers death. His Light overcomes the darkness of our times.  Christ’s love is the answer to the current hate and discrimination.

Palestine exists in the heart of every Palestinian child and a needed Christmas gift of 47 years would be the end of occupation.  Christ is Born!  Glorify Him! Wishing all of you a most blessed Holy Nativity celebration with all of your loved ones.  And, I wish not to be remembered for politics but for someone who believes Christ is our greatest gift.- Maria C. Khoury, Ed. D.

 

OK Maria, but please remember that Christ was never a Christian for that term was not even coined until the third decade after he walked your homeland a Palestinian devout Jewish road warrior who rose up against a corrupt Temple and agitated the status quo of a brutal Military Occupation.

And “Christ you know it ain’t easy” to persist in the good fight for justice and peace when one’s only weapons are truth and love.

John LennonHappy Xmas (War Is Over)

  1.  hThis Holy Land battle focuses on tourists’ wallet
  2. Nazareth suburb’s mayor: Christmas trees ‘provocative’
  3. TILLEY: A call to Christians at Christmas 16Dec11


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