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Dec-26-2012 20:13printcomments

O Little Town in Occupied Territory

Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus was a besieged city. Today Bethlehem is again a besieged city surrounded from three sides by a 25-foot high concrete wall.

Santa in Bethlehem

(BETHLEHEM, Occupied Palestine) - "In a procession calling for 'peace on earth starting with peace in the Holy Land,' Santa led the march to where the confiscation of land and the construction of the Wall were taking place. The Israeli army, in its normal response, used violence and heavy arms to block the peaceful procession." - Sami Awad, American Palestinian, Founder and Executive Director of Holy Land Trust. [1]

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, was born in Bethlehem and has been the Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas church in Bethlehem since 1988.

My July 2007 interview with him follows his December 2012 sermon:

Bethlehem Then and Now

“O little town of Bethlehem” is one of the most famous Christmas Hymns. Bethlehem has become almost a mythological place: Children imagine it with a few “huts,” a few camels and the holy family. At the time of Jesus, Bethlehem was a little town of 300-1,000 inhabitants.

What people might not know is that the city of Bethlehem today is not in Israel but in Palestine, and that it is a bustling city with 28,000 people. One third of them are Palestinian Christians. 

When Christians today sing “O little town of Bethlehem” they seldom think of the real city with the real people. When it comes to Bethlehem and to Christmas, Christianity has become so spiritualized and so commercialized. 

It’s all about Santa, the Tree, the gifts, and the food. But what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago was something real.

Jesus was born as a refugee. His family was forced to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. Later his family had to flee the brutality of King Herod and go into hiding in Egypt for two years. Today Bethlehem has almost 20,000 Palestinian refugees who lost in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, their land, homes and belongings and came to Bethlehem seeking refugee. They are still living in three refugee camps waiting for a just solution. 

The Christmas story of the Bible has nothing to do with what we know today as Christmas.

Take the story of the Magi or the kings from the East. That story is read in a nostalgic way and is being performed over and over again. But a closer look at the story will show that it talks about the Roman Empire and their occupation of Palestine. Empires do not control only the native people they rule; they also work to ensure that visitors coming in contact with the land and its native people are controlled.

In 2010 a well-known evangelical preacher came to attend a theological conference in Bethlehem. Upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israeli officials told him that they would like to invite him for a cup of coffee in their offices and have a chat. For almost four hours he was questioned about his decision to attend a conference in Bethlehem, what he thought of the Palestinian Kairos Document, and how he knew some of these “radical” Palestinian theologians.

This was supposed to be VIP treatment. Others who are part of solidarity movements with Palestine are often detained at the Israeli airport and sent back to their home countries. 



When this highly reputed American evangelical preacher told us his story I told him, “Welcome to Palestine. As someone who knows his Bible well you should not have been surprised by such treatment. The same VIP treatment was also extended to the Magi from the east that came to see Jesus in Bethlehem. Herod too invited them ‘for a cup of coffee’ to ascertain why they wanted to travel to Bethlehem, and how they knew about the newborn child. So now you have experienced something biblical. Welcome to the Holy Land!”

I still recall how everyone in the group laughed. Then an American woman attending the conference asked me, “So what should we tell the Israelis at the airport when they question us about where we have been? What should we say?”

I replied “I wish I could tell you what the angel told the Magi, after visiting Jesus; basically showing them another route not controlled by the Empire. Unfortunately, all roads, airports and borders are controlled by Israel. By the way, an invitation to drink a cup of coffee by Israeli or Arab intelligence authorities is known in political jargon as interrogation.”

We seldom read the story of the Magi as them being interrogated by the occupation that holds the power. But this is what it was. 



Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus was a besieged city. Today Bethlehem is again a besieged city surrounded from three sides by a 25-foot high concrete wall.

So what if Jesus were to be born today in Bethlehem?

If Jesus were to be born this year, he would not be born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so too the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might have been born at the checkpoint like so many Palestinian children while having the Magi and shepherds on both sides of the wall. 



So where is the Gospel in all of this? The good news is this: God came into no other than this troubled, wounded and real world. He is real and wants to enter into our real world with all its complexities and fears. Christmas is real. It is not a myth or a wonder world. The Gospel is that God became one of us, one like us. He came as a child, vulnerable, and weak. And yet through his vulnerability was able to overcome the empire. Christmas is God’s promise to us that we will have life, peace, and future. For us Palestinian Christians and citizens of Bethlehem the Christmas story of then is our story today. Praise God that Jesus is the same: yesterday, today and forever.- Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb

During my 2007 visit to Bethlehem, Rev. Raheb informed me:

"We are not spectators, we have a role to play…we are nonviolent but I have problems with nonviolence; people from abroad come here and give us sermons on nonviolence and I appreciate it, but why don't they preach nonviolence to Israel and America?

"It's a miracle that the Palestinians are so nonviolent in spite of the abuse we live with on a daily basis. If you lived here every day you would get fed up too. The world assumes it is the Palestinians who are the violent ones, but nonviolence is who we are. If you operate in a system of violence you will also be violent when you go home. 


"Palestinians who throw stones; and many think that is ok, but I say why do that? One day you will throw stones at Palestinians too and that is exactly what happened in Gaza, but the reason is the occupation! Where do you think Hamas learned to torture? In Israeli prisons from their captors!

"There is no way to end the violence without first ending the occupation!

"Our Palestinian government was boycotted for a year and a half by America and the EU: this is violence! As long as the violence is exercised against us that is OK with the world. When the Presbyterians talked divestment the Zionist rose up and said 'you can't do that!'

"I started interfaith dialogue in 1985 because Christians should not be islands and you don't dialogue just with yourself, you must dialogue with the other and the biggest temptation for the church is to stay within their walls and only be dedicated to their own members; which leads to a dead church.

"We are called to go out, and we do not just preach with words, people here are fed up with words; they hear one thing and see another with their eyes. 


"They hear peace, peace, peace and for 85 years the politicians have been working for peace and the situation gets worse. Blair, and all the politicians are into PR for themselves; they do nothing for our situation. Blair got himself a good job marketing himself and he will come and go and Israel will continue building the wall, settlements and carving the West Bank into Swiss cheese; Israel gets the cheese and we Palestinians fall into the holes!

"Fifty million American dollars went to build the checkpoints to 'make our lives easier' we were told, but these checkpoints and terminals are not for people, they are for cattle! 


"We have too much religion and it suffocates us! If God would speak today he would say, 'I am fed up with your religion!' The more religion there is; the less spirituality.
 


"During the Israeli invasion in 2002 when the Church of Nativity was occupied by the IDF and Palestinians were sheltered within, as an eyewitness I wrote 18 short stories that will keep you awake at night, in my book "Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble." [2]
 



1. http://samiawad.wordpress.com/

2. Thanking 60 MINUTES and Begging for More

Pastor Raheb's sermon at Bright Stars of Bethlehem website here.

Pastor Mitri Raheb's Advent greeting on video here.

Source: eileenfleming.org/index.php?option=com_easyblog&view=entry&id=10&Itemid=168

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