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As Christian exodus continues pilgrims flock to Bethlehem


BETHLEHEM (AsiaNews): Each year, an atmosphere of celebration accompanies Christmas in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. Despite the tragic events in Gaza and tensions elsewhere in the Middle East, some 75,000 pilgrims were expected to arrive in the Holy Land at Christmas.

Catholic broadcaster and head of Al-Mahed Nativity TV in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh, reported that traffic has shut down the city of Bethlehem this year, with its streets and squares decked out in lights and brightly coloured decorations.

“Here everyone celebrates Christmas,” he said. “Bethlehem has a Muslim majority and the Muslim community actively participates in the many initiatives of the season.”

On December 23, hundreds of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, watched the lighting of the Christmas tree in the centre of the city. The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, as well as other political leaders took part in the celebration.

On December 25, the president of Palestine, Mahmud Abbas, attended midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity.

Qumsieh said that he believes that the current positive atmosphere is only a respite from what Christians experience every day in the Holy Land, especially in the Palestinian territories.

“The participation of political leaders in Christmas celebrations is not enough to calm Christian fears in Bethlehem,” he explained. “In light of the economic situation and social discrimination, they continue to emigrate.”

He goes on to say, “We are victims of the divisions between Hamas and Fatah and of Israel’s repressive policies. We can no longer live much longer in their situation.”

He added that the two Palestinian factions are far from real reconciliation. The growth of Hamas in the West Bank is complicating the situation, with the danger that Christians might be crushed by Islamic extremism.

“Even the recognition of Palestine by the United Nations has not changed anything on the ground,” Qumsieh said.

“Instead of going back to the negotiating table, Israel used Mahmoud Abbas’ action to justify thousands of new homes in the West Bank, which probably had been planned for quite some time, and were not part of a vendetta as many analysts say,” he continued.

For Qumsieh, religion and politics interact in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

He cites the call by Hamas leader for a jihad against the Israelis, who are accused of occupying sacred Muslim land, and statements by right-wing Israeli leaders who use the bible to claim the territories.

Christians are caught in-between and their voice is increasingly weak.

“Unfortunately, the growth of armed Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East does not help,” he said. “After the exodus from Iraq, Christian Churches could now disappear from Syria. In the Holy Land we are a small percentage that continues to decline.”

Since 1967, about 35 per cent of the Palestinian Christian population has emigrated. By 2020, they should be only 1.6 per cent of the total population.

Most Christian families live from religious tourism, which employs thousands of people. On December 20, the Episcopal Commission for Pilgrimages of the Assembly of Ordinary Bishops issued an appeal to encourage pilgrims to visit the Holy Land.

“Do not be afraid to visit your Mother Church,” the statement says. “The itinerary of your pilgrimage is safe and far from dangers.”

Israel’s tourism minister said that tourists would have access to a free 15 to 20 minute shuttle bus service from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, on December 24 and 25.

The presence of Christians and pilgrims in the Holy Land is seen as being a valuable resource for interfaith dialogue.


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