The Christmas celebration in Bethlehem will be muted this year. Few pilgrims are expected. Since the 40-day occupation and siege of the Church of the Nativity last April, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told America, the Christians of Palestine feel abandoned by the world (see the interview in this issue). After two years of Israeli repression of the second Palestinian intifada, the Palestinian territories are one immense prison.
Regrettably, renewed suicide bombings by Palestinian militants against innocent Israelis assure there will be no change in the situation soon. On Nov. 21, after 11 bus riders were killed and many more were wounded by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, Israeli tanks re-entered Bethlehem.
While curfews had not been enforced in Bethlehem and the neighboring Christian towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala since last August, conditions of siege have prevented movement outside the confines of the towns. Elsewhere, in the north of the West Bank, many curfews have remained in place. The ill and infirm die for lack of access to hospitals and medical supplies. After every Palestinian attack, sweeping roundups of men take place. Homes are demolished, farmland confiscated and olive groves razed. Commerce is impossible. Checkpoints and other controls make even supplying emergency relief exceedingly difficult.
The people of Palestine, including its Christians in the Bethlehem area, have come to know too well “the rod of the oppressor,” of which Isaiah writes (9:4). This Christmas we want to offer a salute to the citizens of Bethlehem and the expatriate community who have let their light shine in the darkness of this last deadly year.
We begin with Ibrahim Faltas, the Franciscan friar who mediated the occupation and siege at the Church of the Nativity last April. Whether he was pleading for humanitarian assistance, accompanying the young and the injured to safety, updating the press or advising negotiators, he showed himself a tower of strength for all parties.
Sister Susan Sheehan, a Franciscan, also did heroic work during the siege, carrying food and supplies by night to those living closest to the Church of the Nativity, who for more than a month endured a round-the-clock curfew. “I trusted in God,” a friend reports her saying, “and never looked back.”
Trauma among Palestinian children is at epidemic levels. Experts estimate it will be five to seven years before many will recover. At Holy Family Crisis Counseling Center, Sister Rose Balolo Mesa and her staff are doing vital work healing and comforting God’s “little ones,” as are the Franciscan sisters at the Caritas Baby Hospital.
Father Yacoub Isaac, the pastor of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, and Father Majdi Siryani, the Catholic pastor in Beit Sahour, also did extraordinary service in opening their churches as refuges to townspeople whose homes had been destroyed or who feared the fateful knock on the door announcing a domestic invasion by the Israel Defense Force.
The English-speaking world should be proud of the perseverance of the de La Salle Christian Brothers at Bethlehem University, who with the university’s courageous lay faculty and staff have managed to keep the school’s doors open more than 110 days this year. Bethlehem is the only university on the West Bank to have held a commencement for the 2002 academic year.
Even more, the university’s students, both Muslim and Christian, deserve praise for commitment to their studies under the most adverse circumstances. They are forced to walk to school with books in hand, studying as they go, because a one-way trip through numerous Israeli checkpoints may take up to four hours.
Israel’s security should not mean Palestinians’ oppression. American Catholics can help relieve the sense of isolation among Palestinian Christians. They can give voice to the need for a speedy and just settlement in messages to the Bush administration and in the halls of Congress. For only the U.S. government can create the momentum for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. bishops have repeatedly identified the terms of settlement: (1) Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, (2) an end to the reciprocal violence and (3) the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Every Christmas we draw much solace from the little town of Bethlehem. This Christmas American Catholics, and America’s readers, have an opportunity to show solidarity in return to the people of Bethlehem. As we worship the Prince of Peace, let us also do the work of peace—for them.