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Fresh mood in Bethlehem, but little joy

19 December 2011

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

AT THE first Christmas in Bethlehem since the start of the Arab Spring, Palestinians are welcoming the new mood in the region — although without being able to point to specific signs that the revolutionary atmosphere is helping their cause.

A number of dark clouds still hang over the Holy Land, in the form of significant obstacles in the way of the Palestinians’ dream of statehood, and continuing tensions within the community.

On the positive side, inter­national attention was refocused for a time away from the Arab Spring earlier this year, when the Palestinian leadership lodged a demand with the UN Security Council for international recognition of statehood. While this route will be blocked, the Palestinians achieved a break­through by being awarded full membership of UNESCO.

But these diplomatic gains have come at a price. Israel has responded by putting new energy into the West Bank settlement expansion programme. So, as the Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad was turning on the lights of a Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem earlier this month, the Israeli government was approving the construction of 40 new settlement units at Efrat, just to the south of the town.

At the tree-lighting ceremony, Mr Fayyad said that Christmas brought the attention of the world to Bethlehem for a brief moment each year. He might have gone on to say that this applies to the Holy Land and Palestine as a whole. In this year of the Arab Spring, as never before, all eyes have been fixed on developments in the wider Middle East.

For Arab Christians in the West Bank and within the borders of Israel, the revolutions have created more anxiety than hope of a better future: the success of Islamic groups in subsequent elections is a probable sign of things to come in Palestine.

Equally worrying for the inhabitants of the Holy Land are the continuing rifts in the Palestinian community. Efforts throughout the year to bridge the gap between the Fatah-dominated leadership in the West Bank and the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip have achieved only limited success.

At the same time, Palestinians have been reminded of the centuries-old differences between the three Christian Churches with rights to the Church of the Nativity. Years of argument involving representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches have allowed the structure of the 1500-year-old building to fall into serious decay.

Damage to the roof means that the safety of worshippers is at risk, and leaking rainwater is harming the interior. None of the three Churches could afford not to contribute to the cost of repairs, for fear that this might diminish its rights within the building.

But, as the parlous state of the roof threatens the whole building’s survival, the three Churches have agreed on a compromise. The repairs — costing up to £10 million — will be overseen by the Palestinian Authority, and begin next year.

For many citizens of Bethlehem, however, the concern this Christmas is more about economic survival. To help some of those in need, the UK-based charity the Friends of the Holy Land is supporting 450 children under 12, and 90 elderly people. The children include orphans, those in extreme poverty, and others who are physically or mentally sick. Many have lost their jobs and income, while others have no homes.

There will probably be at least as many people in need in Bethlehem next Christmas as this one, as the town will still be in the shadow of the Israel/West Bank security barrier, and it is likely that there will be more Israeli settlements.

Yet the vision of a just and lasting peace will remain, as Canon Naim Ateek, head of the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, Sabeel, says in his Christmas message: “The only possibility for peace and goodwill is through work for justice — work that moves the world towards God’s vision of peace and reconciliation. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem embodies this movement.”

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