The little town of Bethlehem is relatively peaceful and calm this Christmas as pilgrims and tourists are fully occupying hotels and guest houses, making the 5,000 local families who rely on the tourist trade thankful that “there is no room at the inn.”
Security remains strong and there is no sign of the violence which kept visitors away during the first Intifada in the early 2000s. Even 700 Christians from Gaza received permits to travel abroad or to the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, to visit relatives and celebrate Yeshua’s birth.
The fireworks and festivities of Manger Square in Bethlehem are a tiny light amid the wars and troubles of the Middle East – but the birth of that defenseless child reminds us that the smallest of lights is enough to show the world the way.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5
The fragility of Jesus as a baby is most easily understood by Gazan Christians. Some 3,000 strong just 10 years ago, they now number just 1,000 amid a population of 1.7 million. They are caught between intense radical Islamic persecution and even martyrdom in recent years – although still technically retaining some rights and freedoms – and the highly restrictive blockade which Israel maintains for its own security.
Of the Christians, many are traditional Christians due to cultural heritage while others due to a heart change. Muslims who decide to follow Yeshua are the most vulnerable, remaining in deep hiding. Christians who say that they would prefer to live under the law and order of Israel, rather than being ruled by the terrorist organization Hamas would be endangered. Of the hundreds who have received permission to leave this Christmas, some will not return, but will seek a better life in the West Bank or abroad.
Things are a little bit easier in Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, where 52,000 Christians live amidst a population of 2.7 million (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics). Also an alarmingly diminishing minority, their rights and freedoms are technically upheld by the officially secular Fatah government, although persecution is also social and Islamic radicals still torment believers. The Israeli walls and checkpoints also constrain them.
According to the Israeli military 500 West Bank Christians will be allowed to visit family in Gaza this Christmas. In 1990, under partial Israeli rule Christians were the majority in Bethlehem. Today they make up just 15 percent. There is less poverty in the West Bank – officially 17 percent as opposed to 38 percent in Gaza, despite unparalleled foreign aid much of which goes to corruption and supporting terrorists.
In contrast, in the rest of Israel, Arab Christians benefit from complete freedom to live out their faith in one of the Middle East’s only thriving Christian communities. In Haifa, a large brightly lit Christmas tree lights up the down-town area and numerous Arab Christian churches attract large numbers.
But, Christmas trees are confusing – in Haifa’s advanced institute of technology, the Technion, the institute’s Rabbi Dokow has forbidden Jewish students from entering the campus student union because of the presence of a Christmas tree, which he describes as a pagan symbol.
Meanwhile Rabbi Shlomo Aviner supported Dokow online, stating that Christians cannot be trusted because, “Their hands are stained with Jews’ blood over the course of centuries: murders, destruction, expulsions and humiliations.”
In response, a high profile and pro-Israel Arab priest, Gabriel Naddaf, is publicly trying to calm the situation. At the same time many Messianic fellowships, often jointly led by Jews and Arabs, are celebrating Hanukkah – the festival of lights, which falls on the same day as Christmas this year, downplaying the unnecessary cultural trappings of the season and focusing on the Lord himself.
The Palestinian tourism authority states that 2.3 million tourists have visited this year, up from last. Many believers will follow in the footsteps of Jesus, visiting Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem.
Often Palestinian Christians, especially in Gaza, feel overlooked by the international Christian community in favor of Messianic Jews, and so 2017 visitors to the area might find a warm welcome in connecting to all the “living stones” of the land of Jesus birth, sharing in their joys and sufferings.