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Silent night, holy night? Christmas in Bethlehem

Sarah Judith Hofmann ad
December 22, 2017

For Christians, Bethlehem is a pilgrimage site, but its inhabitants live in fear of rising political tensions after President Donald Trump announced that the US will recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Bethlehem Geburtskirche
Image: picture-alliance/Zumapress/W. Hashlamoun

And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Bethlehem: the place the Bible tells us Jesus was born. And from here, 2,000 years ago, a message of peace spread around the world, one that Christians feel should still be valid. Christians living in Bethlehem today would love to celebrate Christmas in a peaceful atmosphere. But that is not easy.

Ever since Donald Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Bethlehem — which is located on Palestinian territory, on the West Bank about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) south of Jerusalem — has also been receiving more attention. Images have shown angry young Palestinians burning pictures of the US president. Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have occurred near the city's historical center, with protesters throwing stones and setting car tires on fire and soldiers responding with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Father Nicodemus Schnabel
Father Nicodemus SchnabelImage: Privat

To Father Nicodemus of the Catholic Dormition Abbey of Jerusalem, the developments are "particularly painful." The Benedictine monk has lived for almost 15 years in the monastery on Jerusalem's Mount Zion and has witnessed much tension and aggression between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, he says: "To the place that saw the incarnation of the Prince of Peace, nothing could be more alien than strife and war."

The wall separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem

The uproar in Bethlehem following Trump's Jerusalem declaration hasn't surprised Father Nicodemus. "To me, Bethlehem and Jerusalem are like twin cities." The Bible called Jerusalem the big city and Bethlehem the small city. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, King of the Jews, followed by Jesus Christ roughly a thousand years later. Jerusalem is the city where both brought their influence to bear. The UN partition plan of 1947 accorded international status not only to Jerusalem but to Bethlehem as well. "These places are too big, too universal," said Nicodemus. "They shouldn't be squeezed into small nation states or minimized by nationalism."

Israeli forces clashing with Palestinian protestors near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
Israeli forces clash with Palestinian protestors near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Al Shaer

Jerusalem and Bethlehem are separated by a concrete wall ten meters (33 feet) high, constructed and controlled by Israel. The checkpoint can only be passed with a permit.

Kamal Mukarker, a Christian Palestinian, acquired such a permit a few weeks ago. Prior to that, the tourist guide was allowed to accompany pilgrims to Bethlehem's Grotto of the Nativity, but he could not enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Tourists, by contrast, easily pass the checkpoint. Many travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for just two hours. Their destination: the Church of the Nativity.

"I always ask them: Don't you want to see a bit more of Bethlehem?" said Mukarker, who once studied in Germany. More often than not, the tourists are very eager to see more of the historical center, the market and the local people. "Nobody told them before that the city has a lot more to offer than just the Church of the Nativity."

 Remembering 2002: Shots at the Church of the Nativity

Kamal Mukarker, tour guide in Bethlehem
Kamal Mukarker, tour guide in Bethlehem Image: ARD/B.Hammer

In the initial aftermath of Trump's Jerusalem decision, tourist bookings slowed to a trickle. Even one of Bethlehem's biggest hotels, Jacir Palace, usually booked out in the Christmas season, had reservations for just 11 of its 250 rooms. In the past days, however, some hotels say they have filled up close to capacity, at least for the Christmas night.

Several countries have issued travel warnings for the West Bank, and six travel groups canceled previously booked tours with Mukarker. He doesn't complain, however, pointing out: "If the Palestinians don't take to the streets after Trump's announcement, the entire world will think they don't care if Jerusalem becomes the capital of Israel." He sees the protests as important even if they cause more harm than benefit.

Tourists have not been affected by the protests, said Mukarker: "Nothing has ever happened to a tourist, not even during wartime." In 2002, with the Second Intifada reaching its climax, Palestinian fighters withdrew into the Church of the Nativity, and the Israeli army beleaguered the church for eight days. Mukarker recalls: "We felt totally deserted, also by the entire Christian community." Eight people were killed before the Vatican mediated and Israelis and Palestinians reached an agreement.

Fear of a third Intifada

"I believe we Palestinians have learned that rebellion has more negative than positive consequences. We had to learn that lesson the hard way. Now we prefer to rely on peaceful action or UN resolutions to put pressure on Israel. I believe we Palestinians understand that we must keep the peace so that more people come here to take a look at the political situation."

Just a few days ago: Christians lighting candles in front of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Just a few days ago: Christians lighting candles in front of the Church of the Nativity, BethlehemImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/N. Nasser

Both the Christian Palestinian Mukarker and the German monk Nikodemus agree that so far there has been no reason to fear an outbreak of a third intifada - even though the Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Hanija called for one. The word "intifada" raises fears not only among Israelis and Palestinians, but all over the world. Having recently visited Gaza, Father Nikodemus reports that he's never seen so much open criticism of Hamas and believes that its influence is on the decline: "I believe that the Palestinians have no desire to become stooges of Hamas. They're saying, 'I won't have Hamas order me to engage in an intifada so that they can take credit for it." Father Nikodemus is much more concerned about the strong feeling of resignation he sees among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who feel that nothing will ever change whatever they do.

Did the angels speak in the language of humans?

Mukarker himself occasionally feels that kind of desperation: "Sometimes I think people will always return to war and upheaval," he says, adding that the message of peace that once began here, has never really arrived here - adding, with wry humor, "Is it just because the angels spoke neither Hebrew nor Arabic?" Looking at the Church of the Nativity, the centuries of hope that the church instilled in people pass through his mind: "Christian communities of every kind from all over the world continue to flock to the church, including Copts, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and others. That's the only thing that keeps me going as a Christian. It means that as a tour guide, I have a job so I can feed my family."

Christmas one year ago: pilgrims at a Dormition Abbey event in the Church of the Nativity
Christmas one year ago: pilgrims in the Church of the Nativity Image: Dormitio-Abtei, Jerusalem

Every year, during the night from December 24th to the 25th, Father Nikodemus leads his brothers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, carrying a roll with a long list of names of people who would have loved to join the group but weren't able to. This Christmas Eve, the roll will again be blessed and taken to the Church of the Nativity. Nothing will stop Father Nikodemus and his brothers, who recall words from the Bible: "Don't be afraid!" Accordingly, Father Nikodemus offers encouragement to the region's Christian minority, saying, "Be courageous, don't be afraid, look to the future with hope."

On the square in front of the Church of the Nativity stands a big Christmas tree. To protest Trump's Jerusalem declaration, Bethlehem's municipal government turned off its lights. Meanwhile, they are shining again - perhaps as a sign of hope.


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