As the world prepares to mark the birth of the greatest Palestinian of all time, I wonder what Bethlehem was like at the time of His birth. Well, it was under the oppressive regime of King Herod, ‘client’ king of the only superpower of the time, Rome, which wanted to retain control of Palestine because of its proximity to Rome’s two resource rich domains – Syria and Egypt.
Not much changes in a mere 2000 years, does it?
In my quest for a present day resident of Bethlehem, I came across Anton Murra, a Palestinian Christian and writer specializing in interfaith dialogue, Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives and multicultural understanding.
In his recent post on the Huffington Post, Murra explains:
Religion plays a big role in the life of Palestinians – and integrates itself into politics, culture, society and ethics – like no other place in the world. In Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have experienced good relations and have demonstrated solidarity and support for each other on many occasions. There is a shared history among the Palestinians in Bethlehem that has created good relations throughout history… Today in Bethlehem, however, Christianity is experiencing a crisis. This is not due to the growth of so-called Islamic fundamentalism or the persecution of “believers” by their Muslim neighbors, misrepresentations that are unfortunately used to distract from the realities of occupation. (emphasis added)
Instead, the plight of the Palestinian Christian is very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both experience injustices every day as a result of oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli Occupation.
Bethlehem is about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. Although only about 20% of Palestinians in Bethlehem are Christians, Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem have been living together for centuries. They are neighbors, friends and classmates. Both have suffered from the Israeli occupation for over sixty years and both have showed steadfastness in the face of oppression.
Like their Muslim neighbors, who are also prevented at checkpoints and roadblocks from making pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Christians in Bethlehem are denied basic religious freedoms, routinely prohibited from traveling very short distances to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are commemorated.”
Murra goes on to elucidate the responses he got to his question: What do Palestinians want for Christmas?
… Some people mentioned spiritual gifts like love, faith and hope… Other people wished for the end of the occupation and freedom for Palestine. These people have suffered tremendously from the Israeli occupation… Like those who wish for world peace, these wish for peace and justice for the Palestinian people. They are not activists nor are they affiliated to any political group. They are simply ordinary people who are frustrated with the Israeli occupation and consider it the source of hatred and evil.
Roger Salameh, a 27-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem, argues ‘for us to live in peace, the occupation must end.’ His Christmas wish is for ‘a free country recognized by the world.’ Another group of people wishes for a better life situation for themselves and for their relatives and friends. Others wish for food security, health, jobs and reconciliation with their relatives and neighbors. They want to challenge the depressing reality that surrounds them and live lives despite all the odds.
Murra then explains his own thoughts and dreams:
I myself have been experiencing the Israeli occupation all my life. I’ve heard people talking about peace and justice since I was a little boy. A lot of people were lost struggling for peace and justice. I have been actively working towards achieving peace and bringing justice for the Palestinians since 2000. I haven’t given up hope and I will keep working to bring about positive change.
‘I have a dream’ and I don’t care how disappointing it has been working to achieve that dream. But I know that my dream is possible. I know that in process of achieving my dream I will encounter a lot of failure, a lot of pain. Sometimes when I am alone and I see all the injustices, I doubt my faith and I start asking why this is happening to us? Palestinians are just trying to take care of their families.”
So as you rush around to fulfil every little Christmas wish of those near and dear to you, what will you do to help Anton Murra and his fellow-Palestinians to fulfil their dreams?
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year !!!