Bethlehem today: life in the birthplace of Christ

Event at cathedral focuses on current events in Holy Land

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

DSC_0134DUBUQUE — “Jesus wept.” This message can be found on the graffiti-covered concrete that makes up part of the barrier wall dividing the West Bank from Israel. A photograph of these spray-painted words were shared during the presentation “O Little Town of Bethlehem: Birthplace of Christ Today,” held at the Cathedral of Saint Raphael in Dubuque on the evening of Dec. 10. Speakers were Dr. John Eby, a history professor at Loras College, and Brenna Cussen Anglada, an instructor of religious studies at Clarke University.

Eby and Anglada explained that as the birthplace of Christ, the city of Bethlehem is often only considered in the context of the Christmas story. But in their two-hour presentation, they shifted the focus from what happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, to the situation in the city today. Specifically, they explored the challenges faced by Palestinian Christians who live in Bethlehem, located in what is now the West Bank. While most Palestinians are Muslim, a significant minority is Christian, and Bethlehem is home to the largest Christian population in Palestine.

The presentation began with Eby first looking at some of the history behind the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The region that would become Israel was the historical homeland of the Jewish people, and an important part of the Jewish-identity was an association with the land. He also discussed the experience Jews had in Europe prior to Israel’s existence. He said that for a thousand years, the Jewish people attempted to assimilate in to European society, but their efforts were rejected. From massacres in medieval times to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi death camps, Jews faced a painful history of dis­crimination, expulsion and even mass murder. Understandably, many Jews came to the conclusion that they needed their own state to ensure their safety.

He went on to explain that from the perspective of the Palestinians, though, the creation of the state of Israel has meant a catastrophic and consistent loss of more and more of their land over time. He displayed a series of maps, the first of which showed the amount of land that the Palestinian people had in 1947 prior to the state of Israel. With each consecutive map, Palestinians held less land than the one before, until the last map showed nothing but the fragmented, isolated pockets of land they control today.

“These are competing narratives,” Eby said of the two major historical understandings and perspectives held by the Israeli and Palestinian people. “They are both compelling narratives. They’re emotionally compelling, politically compelling and morally compelling.”

Anglada looked at the more recent past and focused on the situation in Palestine since the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, a set of agreements made between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the hope of finding a solution to their ongoing conflict over the land, failed to bring lasting peace. As the Oslo Accords broke down and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers targeted Israeli citizens, Israel began building a wall in 2002 between itself and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

In some areas, the wall is a 26-foot high slab of concrete, one that Palestinians have covered in graffiti as a way of protesting its existence, but also as a form of expression. But in most areas, the wall is actually more of a multi-layered fence. The structure is still being built, but will be 460 miles long when completed. Its presence has become a serious point of contention between Israel and the Palestinians.

Anglada explained that since the wall does not follow the border between Israel and the West Bank, part of Palestinian lands fall on the western, Israeli side of the wall. This has created instances of families being separated on opposite sides. Some farmers have lost access to olive tree groves their families have farmed for generations since the land the groves sit on now falls on the other side of the wall. Other Palestinians have been left homeless as they watched their houses bulldozed to make room for the wall’s construction.

A series of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank also make everyday movement extremely difficult for many Palestinians who need to travel between villages and towns inside Palestinian territory for work or school.

The situation in the West Bank has caused many Christians in Bethlehem to leave a city they don’t want to move from, but feel they simply can’t remain in. Their exodus from Bethlehem was highlighted in statistics shared by Anglada. “In 1948, 90 percent of the population of Bethlehem was Christian,” she explained. “Today, Christians comprise only about a third of the population of Bethlehem.” The rest of the Christians have left. She shared a story of one woman reluctantly taking her children to Saudi Arabia because she felt she couldn’t raise them in Bethlehem under the current conditions there.

The presenters also spent time looking at the Kairos document, a work written in 2009 by Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, titled “A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering.” The purpose of the document was to bring international attention to the suffering of the Palestinian people and to call for justice for Palestinians living in the land under Israeli control. It describes the situation from a Palestinian perspective and recommends different nonviolent responses such as a boycott and divestment from industries. The presenters also discussed some of the main criticisms of the document, including those who call the document too much of a one-sided approach.

The Bethlehem presentation was organized by the Adult Faith Formation Committee of St. Raphael and St. Patrick Parishes, two linked faith communities in the city of Dubuque.

Mark Schmidt, pastoral associate for the parishes, said of the presentation, “One of the great things about having events like this, and all of our future adult faith formation events, is that we are able to not only talk about what our faith teaches to help us recognize the need to continue to grow in our faith throughout our lives, but also how our faith should inform and help us develop our understanding of the world and society around us and how we interact and advocate for justice, peace, love and hope.”


This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.