According to Christian belief, Bethlehem was the city in which Jesus was born on Christmas day, to be celebrated this weekend, December 25th. However, Bethlehem is no longer the Christian city it had been for the past 1,500 years.
PA officials claim that the Christian population of Bethlehem is 40% of the city’s residents. The true percentage of Christians in the city is believed to be far lower, however.
Christians made up nearly two thirds of Bethlehem’s population in the early 1990s, before the signing of the Oslo Accords. Today Christians are estimated to make up only 20% of the city’s population. The decline has largely been caused by negative migration since the PA assumed full authority over Bethlehem in 1995.
Palestinian Arab nationalism does not leave room for any Christian minority. Christians in Bethlehem feel that they are confined to a cultural and religious ghetto.
Radical left-wing journalist Gideon Levy described the current state of Bethlehem. “There is no joy in Bethlehem. The shops are empty and the atmosphere is gloomy. Only the churchyard attracts tourists, who come for a moment and then immediately leave. The luxury hotel is empty during the period which should be the busiest time of the year.” Levy wrote in Haaretz. As usual, Levy automatically blames Israel, but the truth is somewhere else.
I personally remember other days, days when Bethlehem was crowded with tourists from all over the world. The high occupancy rates of hotels in the city affected other hotels in the surrounding areas, such as Jerusalem and Ramallah. The markets were full of all manner of good things. And Arab children did good business selling olive branches to the masses of tourists. The Church of the Nativity was a focal attraction in those days, and one had to wait in long lines for a short moment and a picture with the silver star indicating to Christians the location where Jesus was born.
It is not easy to be a Christian in Bethlehem. Modesty patrols operate in the city alongside Hamas-affiliated groups, and they require Christians to dress modestly. They are not necessarily peaceful. Isolated instances of intermarriage between Christians and Muslims lead to severe crisis and violence on the Muslim side. Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to declare their loyalty to the Palestinian Arab cause – for the same reasons the Druse on the Golan Heights are compelled to declare their loyalty to the leaders of Syria.
Courageous attempts by Christians over the years to be annexed to the State of Israel have been repeatedly rejected. The strife between the PA and Israel has been especially hard on the Christian community. During the Second Intifada Christian residents and institutions were subject to repeated harassment by Arab armed forces.
Christian depression reached a nadir during Operation Defensive Shield, when Arab terrorists barricaded themselves inside the Church of the Nativity, along with 250 Christian clergymen and worshipers. The State of Israel sought to avoid Christian casualties and causing harm to the church, and the incident ended in negotiations between the two parties. When the fighting ended, the damage to the site became clear: arson damage to the church complex, the looting of religious items, and the use of pages from Christian Bibles as toilet paper.
The desecration of the Church of the Nativity received no condemnations from the UN or UNESCO.
Christians face the same situation throughout the territories controlled by the PA and Hamas. Christian emigration out of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip increases as the ‘Palestinian State’ grows and takes shape. The Middle East is no different. In fact, the only place in the Middle East where there is growth among the Christian minority is the State of Israel.
Reverend Gabriel Naddaf acknowledges this and declared this year that without the State of Israel the Christians here would also be a persecuted minority, just like in the rest of the Middle East. In Egypt, for example, the Coptic Christians are persecuted, and an attack which occurred recently claimed the lives of dozens of people in a Church bombing in Cairo. Tens of thousand of Christians are emigrating. In Iraq, for example, 60% of the Christian population has left. In Lebanon, as Iranian funds are transferred for the purchase of Christian lands, the Shiites are carrying out their conquest of the Christian population, which is in retreat.
The conclusion is obvious. Only under Israeli control or in specific cases of international religious Christian complexes can Christians maintain their unique character in the Middle East. It is clear, even if they do not declare it openly, that Christians, just like many Muslims in Judea and Samaria, yearn for Israeli ‘occupation.’