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O Little Dying Town of Bethlehem

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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".

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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.

The crowd had plans to do what any Christians would do if they were so close to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday walk into the holy city waving palm branches to commemorate that peaceful procession some 2000 years ago.

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.

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We set off with the donkeys and children leading the way, refusing to be discouraged by the looming military barrier we all knew was in our way a mile down the road to Jerusalem. Our peace songs echoed off ancient walls as the crowd weaved through the streets of Bethlehem. We marched along, waving our palm branches in the bright sun.

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 holy sites."

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."

More reinforcements quickly arrived. The soldiers linked arms and began pushing and shoving us back. Cries of "Please: no violence" came from the marchers.
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.

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"You don't have to be here, you can go back to your family," someone said
to them. "You should not be here and you know it. You don't want to be here. This is the wrong place for you." "Stand for peace. Stand for the right of people to pray in their holy sites. You can join us." "Does anyone deny you the right to pray? "If you let us go to Jerusalem we will pray for you too!"

At the far end of the front line a Palestinian woman with a silver cross around her neck patiently held a large bunch of palm branches. She stood in front of two soldiers, trying to talk with them. Behind the front row of soldiers, more reinforcements arrived, their guns glinting in the noon-time sun.

After speaking some more to the commander, Dr Ghassan reported back to the crowd: "They have ordered us to go back to Bethlehem. They are threatening to use violent force against us. They are proud of this discriminatory policy. When I said: "this is racist', they said "this is how it is, let it be. This is the way it
is, you have to abide by it.' They want to block us and push us back to Bethlehem. They have ordered us to disperse or they will use force. But we are not interested in a confrontation; we don't want to have violence here. Those people are willing to use violence and we are not willing to do it."

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Joe Parko is a retired college professor who taught for 28 years in the School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on the steering committee of Cumberland (more...)
 

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