In Bethlehem

I have run behind with updating my weblog. Today it’s the 5th of June, but I have arrived in Bethlehem on May 8th after having left Jenin the same day. Saying goodbye to Jenin was very very hard after I had met so many motivated students and even friends. But I had to leave for Bethlehem to start the second part of my “mission”.

Bethlehem is certainly not the kind of city Jenin is. Jenin has a business center packed with offices and shops which is very lively and busy during office hours (and completely deserted after closing time). It’s Old City is nothing to write home about and there aren’t many museums or other historical sites within the city center of Jenin.  Tourist and other foreigners are very very rare, so Jenin is a genuine Palestinian city.

How different the situation in Bethlehem is. Busloads of tourists from all over the world pour in 24 hours a day. Most of them are Christian pilgrims and they all go to “Nativity Church” in the city center. This church is built on the spot where Jesus Christ is said to be born.  After visiting this church they can go to one of the many other churches in the city. It seems every denomination from every country is represented.  
To ease the “souvenir hunger” of the tourists Bethlehem has an uncountable number of souvenir shops where all kinds of objects made of olive wood (mainly crosses, camels, cribs or nativity scenes,  etc. etc.) can be purchased. But the city is also attractive for non-believers who can visit the “Old City” of Bethlehem, which, in my view, lives up to East Jerusalem, although smaller in proportion. This overwhelming tourism gives the city an international atmosphere and perhaps that’s the reason why many NGOs for peace and reconciliation are located here.

Bethlehem used to be a Christian stronghold. The city was mainly populated by Christian Palestinians who belong to the oldest Christian families in the world. The family names of these Palestinians are very often Italian, French, or Greek. Their European background adds to the international atmosphere in this city. I have been told that the Christian influence is even beneficial to the freedom of women who are, for example, allowed to smoke the water pipe in public. In Jenin this would be impossible.

Unfortunately, the second Intifada and the occupation have had a very negative effect on the Christian population which was always very successful in Bethlehem economy. Although Christianity and Christians are still clearly present in Bethlehem, the occupation has decimated their numbers and most of them had to leave to find work in other cities or even other countries. Yet another example of the devastating effect the occupation has on the cultural richness of Palestinian society. The Christian Palestinians who stay very often don’t understand why the sympathy of Christians from Europe and America lies with Israeli Jews instead of with them.   The Christian Palestinians seem to have become a group that has to work hard to survive without complaining too much, for who is going to listen?

In this city, completely different from Jenin, I will work in the weeks to come. Well, not in the city, but in one of the three refugee camps of Bethlehem…….Aida camp!


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