Bethlehem

"Christianity Is Slowly Dying"

The famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has in recent times been the scene of conflicts between the state of Israel and the Palestinians. These conflicts have also had their effect on the Christian community. Andy Martin reports

The famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has in recent times been the scene of conflicts between the state of Israel and the Palestinians. These conflicts have also had their effect on the Christian community. Andy Martin has observed the scene

photo: AP
Hanna Ibrahim Salman, a Palestinian, performs his job as the official bell ringer of the Nativity Church compound, believed by Christians to be the site where Christ was born

​​Here, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, you might expect to find a whole lot of pilgrims – yet, at the time of our visit, the only people here are a sleeping monk, an elderly gentleman and the orthodox monks you can hear performing the ceremony you can hear over at the altar.

"We are very much concerned about the continuation of Christianity here in Bethlehem", says Dr. Bashara Awad, the principal of the bible college in Bethlehem. "This is where it all started, and many people are Christians – right now 30 percent – (but it) used to be 800 percent (more) several years ago."

Awad started the school 20 years ago with the donation of a cheque for just twenty US Dollars – now this softly spoken man genuinely believes that there could soon be no-one left to teach.

Christians leaving because of harassment

"If you talk to any family here they are talking about leaving – because of the political set-up – because of the harassment, and Christians cannot take it anymore – they are leaving in huge numbers. To me, Christianity is slowly dying in the place where it all started."

Joseph Canavatti, owner of the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem, is one of those Christians about to go.

"In 1998, 1999 and 2000, business was so good, unbelievable – everybody was thinking of expanding – so I expanded, too", Canavatti says.

Canavatti showed me around his hotel – the top of which can only be described as a mess: gaping holes where windows should be, a 24,000 dollar cooler that has never been switched on.

Without tourists, or the likelihood of any visitors in the near future, such a building is worthless.

"(At the) back of the building we started another construction for a shaft for elevators, everything has stopped since the uprising started", Canavatti further explains his dilemma.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Intifadah, it has served few in the Palestinian territories. The results speak for themselves in small cities like Bethlehem.

"Well, I would like to leave tomorrow if I could. The latest statistics say that 200 families left Bethlehem already. It is dangerous – but I might leave my wife here and then we would have to split the family. That would be a disaster", says Canavatti.

Living on nothing but hope

"We have sold our jewellery and our car, we borrowed money from friends – we cannot keep going like that."

"It's like we are just living on hope", Canavatti continues. "There is nothing good for us here as believers."

At the bible college around 15 students are studying for a qualification in media. Many of them had been training for the hospitality industry – but there is no work. Despite training in a field that is more likely to end with a job, this course could be a victim of its own success. Shireen Mataar is one of the women taking the class.

"For me as a girl it is hard to get a job in Palestine, so I hope that this certificate will qualify me to work in an international TV station and not just in a local station", Shireen says. "The economy in this place depends on the tourists – but they are scared to come."

"The tourists come to the checkpoint, have to get off the bus, then take their luggage and get onto another bus; this is too much hassle for tourists", Joseph Canavatti tells me. "They just want everything to be comfortable; they do not want to see soldiers."

I've come to a huge housing development directly opposite Bethlehem, looking over the two miles or so I can see the Church of the Nativity and Joseph's hotel. Where I'm standing used to be a forest in the Palestinian West bank, and although this complex is still under construction – it will soon be sealed off by Israel's security fence.

I've come to ask some of the Israeli's living and working here about the situation in Bethlehem.

"There is needs – young people who get married want to have a family and inside Jerusalem there is no land to build – so we start to develop territories inside Jerusalem", says David Kania, an Israeli Jew living in Gilot. "I don't believe it is a settlement – but I am not objective.''

Gilot is a village next to Bethlehem. Kania operates one of the diggers being used to build this small town.

"People in Bethlehem say that tourists can't get through the checkpoints, and that without tourists, Christianity in Bethlehem is dying", I tell Kania.

''First of all, I believe that without tourism Bethlehem is going to die. Checkpoints are necessary for the security, not because we want to do it, or we are happy to do it – not at all'', Kania says.

"But Christians living in Bethlehem believe there is a wider responsibility for saving their faith in the city."

Moments of despair

"We feel we are being neglected by the outside church", complains Dr. Bashara Awad. "We are the living stones here – we need your prayers, we need your support. But most of all we need the Christians to put pressure that there should be a political solution. Without one, Christianity will certainly vanish."

"The Christians of the wide world, they are not paying attention too this area", says Canavatti. "No, no – they are not paying attention too this area – I don't know why."

In the eyes of Dr. Awad, the prospects are bleak. "I'm afraid there will be very few Christians. For those who cannot leave, for those who are very poor, this place will just be a ghetto city for many Christians, and this is just very sad."

''Do you despair? Well, I am a man of faith. I always pray, but yes I do. I don't like to say it, but there are moments when I despair, yes.''

Andy Martin

© Deutsche Welle 2004

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