The home of the Savior?

Jesus’ birthplace under siege

December 18, 2006 12:00

ALL is quiet in Bethlehem. On Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity stands in the pale gloom of dusk, its doors open to passing pilgrims.
But inside, the nave is empty of visitors and the collection boxes depleted of coins.

In the candlelit grotto downstairs, a silver star marks the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. It is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, but there are no tourists queuing to see it.

Just 500m down the road, Joseph Canawati is not looking forward to Christmas. The expansive lobby of his 77-room Hotel Alexander is empty. “There is no hope for the future of the Christian community,” he said. “We don’t think things are going to get better. For us, it is finished.”

Life for Palestinian Christians such as 50-year-old Canawati has become increasingly difficult in Bethlehem and many of them are leaving.

The town’s Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.

There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs. The breakdown in security is deterring tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

The situation has become so desperate the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor are to lead a joint delegation to Bethlehem this week to express their solidarity with the beleaguered Christian populace.

The sense of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism is all around in Bethlehem. A mosque on one side of Manger Square stands directly opposite the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, while in the evening the muezzin’s call to prayer clashes with the peal of church bells.

Shops selling Santa Claus outfits and mother-of-pearl statuettes of the Virgin Mary have their shutters painted a sun-bleached green – the colour of Islam.

In the Al-Jacir Palace, Bethlehem’s only luxury hotel, there is a baubled Christmas tree in reception and a card showing the direction of Mecca in the rooms.

HT to Orthodixie.

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