During this Christmas season many of us have been singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" but few of us may know that Bethlehem is a dying town that is being strangled by the huge concrete wall that Israel has built around it. Few people know that some 20,000 Palestinian Christians live under a harsh military occupation in Bethlehem and are facing extreme hardship because of the wall that encircles them. What follows is the story of my experience in Bethlehem on Palm Sunday in 2005".
There was a joyful atmosphere in
Bethlehem's Manger Square on Palm Sunday-- after all, it was a holy day for
this predominantly Palestinian Christian town where Jesus was born at the place
marked by a star in the Church of the Nativity that overlooks the main square.
A colorful crowd had gathered under a bright blue sky to mark the occasion. Children waved palm branches and carried balloons. But drawing the most attention were the shepherds and their donkeys. Wearing no costumes, but just their everyday clothes, the shepherds looked as if they had stepped straight from the pages of the New Testament.
But this year was different. The
Israeli military has closed off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and will not permit
Palestinians to leave Bethlehem. Israel has built a 28 foot high concrete wall
around Bethlehem that has turned the town into an open-air prison. I was there
in Manger Square as the Quaker representativewith fifteen members of
Every Church A Peace Church, an organization of U.S. churches devoted to making
Jesus' message of peace a central focus in every American church. Our group
included Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, and
Mennonites. We were there to support our Palestinian Christian brothers and
sisters in this non-violent procession to protest their unjust imprisonment in
their city. We were there to witness to our Christian belief that peace for
Israel is inextricably linked to justice for the Palestinian people.
After a half-mile of marching, the children
and donkeys were led away from the march to keep them out of harm's way.
Despite the threat of military force, the crowd continued the last leg with the
chanting growing louder: "We demand freedom," "No justice- No peace," "We come in peace," "Let us pray at our
We walked through a narrow gap in the menacingconcrete wall that surrounds the town of Bethlehem. As we started moving through the military checkpoint we formed rows and linked arms. The soldiers seem surprised when we continued to walk forward as if they were not there. "Don't mind us. We are going to Jerusalem to pray," one marcher called out as we approached the soldiers.
The soldiers quickly tried to organize themselves into a human barrier in front of us. We kept walking forward forcing them to step back. We were slowly making ground when the military commander came forward and demanded to speak to the person in charge. We could see army jeeps scurrying to block the road ahead and more reinforcements were called from nearby guard posts.
Our group stopped and a leader in the Bethlehem Christian community, Dr Ghassan, an elderly and stately, gray-haired man spoke to the commander quietly.
"We are Christians going to Jerusalem to pray on Palm Sunday, as is our right," he told the army commander. "We want to go to Jerusalem to pray. We have a right to go pray in Jerusalem."
The two groups stood looking at each other. A bunch of unarmed Palestinian and American Christians wanting to pray in Jerusalem facing some thirty Israeli soldiers carrying automatic weapons, who were not allowing them to pass. It was a face off. The only difference was that we stood strong and confident. The soldiers of the Israeli Occupation Forces in front of us were hesitant and nervous despite the guns they were carrying.
The soldiers shuffled uncomfortably and tightened their locked arms. With their orders not to move an inch, the soldiers stood silently as the marchers began to speak to them.