Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bethlehem’s Forgotten Christians

The little town of Bethlehem famously characterized in the renowned Christmas carol captured millions of hearts with its tranquil imagery of Christ’s birthplace.But the Bethlehem that I visited last Christmastime evoked a somewhat different sentiment.Last December I found myself visiting Christians on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East.I traveled across Israel, visiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb, the Damascus Gate, the Dome of the Rock, and Netanya’s rocky coast overlooking the Mediterranean. Reaching Bethlehem,I witnessed the city’s tranquil outer layer-beautiful historical landmarks such as the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Fields-and an equally striking inner layer of turmoil and pain.Going beyond the tourist sites, I found what I perceived to be the real story of today’s little town of Bethlehem-that of the men and women who are walking in the steps of Christ today, regardless of which side of the conflict they find themselves on.
The Last of the Christians
The drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is a winding one, through craggy hills covered in rocks. The road snakes through deep ravines, past tiny patches of civilization, and random buildings constructed and abandoned during the years of conflict. The sun shines across stone fields, revealing an uncannily beautiful landscape.My first stop in Bethlehem is Bethlehem Bible College, a well-respected Bible College providing an opportunity for students from a myriad of backgrounds to gain a quality education.I mingle with the students and explore the classrooms.A narrow door opens onto the roof of Bethlehem Bible College, where I look out over hundreds of whitewashed buildings dotting the hillside.I hear the Muslim call to prayer being broadcast over dozens of loudspeakers at the pinnacle of dozens of mosques.And slowly I begin to catch a glimpse of the day-to-day challenges that Palestinian Christians must feel.The Muslim presence permeates this land.The Institute for Middle East Understanding estimates that about 93% of Palestinians are Muslims, leaving an estimated 6% who are Christians.In the Occupied Territories,however, it is estimated that Palestinian Christians comprise perhaps less than 3% of the population. Islamic neighborhoods abound, and extremism is ever present.It must be hard, I begin to think, when your national identity is so closely intertwined with a particular religious affiliation.The Palestinian Christians I speak with feel misunderstood.They are the last of the dwindling minority of Christians on the West Bank.They are not Muslims, but they are Palestinian.They do not support the extremist attacks, but they often feel that they are treated unjustly by the Israeli army.And for many Palestinian believers, the wall around their city feels like a prison...
By Kristin Butler
Contributing Writer
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As in the days of Noah...

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