By Oliver Maksan
JOSEPH AND MARY quietly rocked the child. Shepherds gathered around them. Children in costumes were enacting the Nativity of Jesus the subterranean chapels tucked away into nooks and crannies under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A silver star marks the birthplace in a grotto right nearby.
The young actors that played the parts of the Holy Family and the Magi were children with disabilities from all over the Palestinian Territories. They live in a house near the Church of the Nativity, which is run by nuns from the Institute of the Incarnate Word. “Our children need strong impressions to understand the truths of our faith,” Sister Maria told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, adding: “A nativity scene helps them understand the mystery of Christmas—that, out of love for us, God became a small and weak child just like them so that He could share our lot.”
The quiet, peaceful scene in the Church of the Nativity stood in stark contrast to the situation in the Holy Land in general. There was no sign of Christmas peace. More than 20 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian assailants since the end of September. In most cases knives and other stabbing weapons were used. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in defensive action or in violent clashes, with hundreds wounded.
This year, Bethlehem’s municipal administration decided to hold more modest Christmas celebrations out of respect for the victims of the recent violence. The town’s Catholic Mayor Vera Baboun explained: “We did not just want to celebrate Christmas as though nothing were happening. We wanted to show that although we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, we are not at peace and are mourning the dead.”
The upswing in violence has hurt Bethlehem’s tourism industry; the livelihood of many Christians depends upon providing food, drink and lodgings to pilgrims and selling devotional items. “The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that this year the rooms were scarcely at half their usual occupancy during the Christmas season.
Given the difficult economic and political situation—as well as mounting pressure by Islamists—more and more Christian families are leaving Bethlehem and the Holy Land. The mood has been made worse now that it appears that almost 60 Christian families in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem are now going to lose their land because of the separation barrier built by Israel despite years of litigation.
Father Pater Ricardo Bustos, guardian of the Franciscan monastery near the Church of the Nativity, said that “we as the church want to use this Year of Mercy to remind the Christians of Bethlehem of their calling and to strengthen them in the faith. The fact that God was made man here 2000 years ago is a sign of hope for this country and its people.”
“Jesus is the door to peace with God and with each other. God has come to change the state of affairs here. Even though the child in the manger may appear fragile: God’s promise is strong and constant,” the Franciscan Friar concluded.