Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2001, page 79

Special Report

A Glimmer of Hope: Christmas in Bethlehem

By Fred Strickert

Amid the stormy clouds and cold wintry showers, a magnificent rainbow covered the sky over Bethlehem just as the Latin Patriarch was about to make his early afternoon arrival at Manger Square in the traditional Christmas Eve procession. The scene marked the spirit of Bethlehem’s residents who braved the elements to try to make something of this somber occasion. “These are God’s tears,” noted one of the few American visitors. “God shares in the suffering of his people.”

“But look at the rainbow,” remarked an older Palestinian resident, pointing to the sky. “God hasn’t deserted us. We live in hope.”

Bethlehem 2000: Cancelled

Christmas 2000 was to have been Bethlehem’s coming-out party. Years of planning, investment and hard work had anticipated the ultimate Christmas celebration—with visiting choirs, overbooked hotels, and souvenir shops bustling with business. Instead, the streets of Bethlehem were destined to be still and silent once again with the inevitable cancellation of official ceremonies.

The news media were quick to jump on the ghost town phenomenon. “O Little Town, How Still It Lies: Bethlehem Blues,” headlined the Christian Science Monitor. Reporters hustled to interview the “only American in Bethlehem.”

Among all the hotels in Bethlehem, only the Star Hotel remained open for guests. The new Millennium Hotel housed families whose homes had been shelled; The Bethlehem Inn near Rachel’s tomb had been requisitioned for Israeli troops; and The Paradise Hotel was still nursing its wounds from Israeli shelling. “I haven’t had a customer in three months,” lamented souvenir shopkeeper Majdi Atar Amer.

It wasn’t only the tourist business that was hurting. The Israeli siege of Bethlehem had closed off all economic exchange: industry has been shut down, and Bethlehem workers have been prevented from going to their employment in Jerusalem, with a cost to the local economy of $2 million each week.

The world must be made aware of the poverty being visited on the Palestinian community, noted Church officials. Father Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Delegate for the Vatican in the Holy Land, told an American church leader delegation that the economic battle has become very serious. Unemployment is rampant, he said, and “five people depend on each salary” The destruction of crops means that “starvation will begin soon,” he added. So the Christmas rains only added to the dampened spirits in Bethlehem.

A Christmas Respite

The sun was out for a few days prior to Christmas, and people returned to the streets. “It is the first time in months, believe me,” said Rana Khoury. “The streets have been deserted.”

The convergence of Ramadan and the Christmas season provided at least a little lift in spirits. “But watch closely,” remarked another businessman. “People are looking, but they have no money to buy.”

After more than a month of nightly shelling, the guns turned silent for a few days.

Perhaps it was a matter of respect for the religious atmosphere. The celebration of Hanukkah in Israel added to the holiness of the season. Another factor may have been the presence of the few brave foreigners who were persistent in making their way past checkpoints and closed entryways. The Christian Peacemaker Team—known for their work in Hebron over the years—also moved a contingent into the Beit Jala area for a month-long stay. They chose a multi-family dwelling where two CPTers would have regular interaction with residents. “We maintained very good relationships with these families and our other neighbors,” Jamey Bouwmeester noted. “We were welcomed warmly. From the beginning locals said that they felt we were in solidarity with them just by living there, where we might be harmed.”

In fact, the CPT house was not exempt from bombing. During the first several nights shelling rocked the house, and CPTers had to seek shelter in the bathroom for several hours as windows were shattered. The team responded by calling the American Embassy and Consulate, as well as the Israeli commander of the area. While the intensity of bombing actually increased during the first days of the CPT presence—perhaps as an attempt to scare them away—shortly before Christmas the bombing of Beit Jala had come to a halt. Were the CPTers a factor? “We were one factor among several,” Bouwmeester responded. “But we were certainly a factor.”

Le Anne Clausen announced a plan for other American volunteers to stay in homes in besieged areas as “human shields” to deter Israeli shelling. Because of the brief Christmas respite, the plan was not implemented.

Despite the rains on Christmas Eve, Bethlehem residents were not to be deterred. Churches were packed to standing-room capacity and Christians sang out the traditional “Leilat al-Milad” (When you give hope to another, that is Christmas).

A Story of Hope: Pipe Organ Restoration

A Christmas miracle of sorts turned up at the Lutheran Christmas Church of Bethlehem when a century-old pipe organ produced music for the first time in decades. The old Berlin-made Dinse organ once had been part of the congregation’s regular worship life before it fell into disuse and disrepair.

A sister congregation, Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis, undertook the ambitious organ restoration project, raising over $ 130,000. In January 2000, organ builder Roland Rutz dismantled the instrument and shipped it to his Morristown, Minnesota factory, where he spent the year replacing dented pipes, adding tuning collars, and completing various cleaning and repair tasks.

Nearly 500 supporters of the project attended an Oct. 29 concert on the rebuilt organ at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minnesota. The next day, Rutz took the organ apart and packed it in crates for shipment to the port of Haifa. The goal was to have the organ ready to play for the 5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service in Bethlehem.

“We knew the odds were against us,” said Rev. Chuck Lutz, chair of the project committee. “With the conflict centering on Bethlehem, there were plenty of hurdles to keep it from getting through.”

Yet Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran was not to be deterred. “We have to try our best,” he said. “There will be no choirs this Christmas, but hopefully the organ will produce the songs of the angels.”

Karen Ullestad, a professional organist from Des Moines, Iowa agreed to make the trek to Bethlehem for the dedicatory concert. “I made the decision knowing full well there might not be an organ for Christmas,” she said.

Notice of the shipment’s Dec. 15 arrival in the Haifa harbor conveyed both good and bad news. Israeli customs officials announced that the import tax would be 31 percent—not the previously agreed-upon 1 percent. That’s a hefty expense that normally would have relegated the shipment to warehouse storage. Yet Rutz convinced authorities to compromise, imposing charges only on the new parts, not the entire value of the organ.

It was a stroke of good fortune that the organ committee chose not to wire the needed additional funds, since the Bethlehem branch of the Israeli-owned Mercantile Bank closed its doors several days later. The congregation’s funds were virtually frozen. A hand-delivered courier made it possible to get the organ out of hock and on the road to Bethlehem.

Less than 48 hours before the scheduled Christmas Eve service, crates with organ pipes and packing material were strewn throughout the nave of the Bethlehem church. The three-man organ-building crew immediately went to work, continuing nearly around the clock to complete the impossible task. By early afternoon Christmas Eve the organ was ready for tuning—not complete, but in playable condition.

At 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve the church was still engulfed in silence, with the only sounds coming from parishioners shaking off their rain-soaked gear as they entered. From the front of the church Pastor Raheb announced that the organ was in place, but that there had been problems. Less than two hours earlier, the transformer had blown. He then went on to explain how he had taken his own car battery and hooked it up to the organ. “My wife went out to use the car, but it wouldn’t run,” he quipped. “Now let’s see about the organ.”

Leading the congregation in the recitation of Psalm 96—“O Sing to the Lord a New Song”—he then turned to the organist, asking, “Do we have music?”

Like the angelic choirs on the hillside of Beit Sahour years ago, the Christmas melodies resounded once again through the still silent streets of Bethlehem. To the strains of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” some parishioners thought for a moment they were to be treated to a liturgical dance by Raheb himself, so visibly was he moved by this Christmas miracle.

There had not been time to install organ lamps, so two page-turners flanked the organist shining flashlights on the music. With her luggage, including her organ shoes, lost by the airlines, the organist played barefoot. What else would one expect? Two American song writers, Herb Brokering and Don Hinchey, had teamed up to compose for congregational singing new lyrics for the traditional “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: 

O little town of Bethlehem, the organs still do play 

Of Jesus in a manger and angels on the way; 

Our music and our singing is louder than a gun, 

And church bells in their ringing remind us we have won.  

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. 

Your love bring down on David’s town; drive fear and hate away. 

Awake the ire of nations, let justice be restored. 

Rebuild the peace in silent streets 

Where once your love was born.

“Some might question the timing of this organ dedication in the midst of suffering,” Pastor Raheb noted. “Yet, more than ever, our children need the gift of music.They need to learn songs of hope.”

The Return of the Wise Men

When the rain clouds finally lifted by late afternoon on Christmas Day, hundreds of residents flocked to Manger Square to welcome a special delegation of visitors from the East. Like the wise men of old, these visitors had made a 1,200-mile trek on camelback bearing gifts. This time, however, they came empty-handed. Instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they offered a message of peace, a commitment of caring, and a voice of hope in the midst of suffering.

“I’m here to enlighten people about the Palestinians and their plight,” announced David Bentley, a college professor from Duarte, California who had joined the caravan in Jordan.

Nine American riders had made the entire three-month trek from Iraq to Bethlehem to remind the world of the suffering of the children in both Iraq and in Palestine. Many followed the Holy Land Trust project on their web sites: <www.holylandtrust.org> and <www.magijourney.org>.

The last leg of their visit coincided with the annual Christmas Day candlelight peace walk which has been a tradition in Beit Sahour for the last eight years.

Nearly 5,000 residents—half of them children—followed along in the solemn, yet joyful procession. Young people were decked out proudly in traditional costumes, with some carrying banners reading “Jesus Weeps for the Palestinians,” and “It’s Our Right to Live in Peace.”

Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center spoke while carrying his young son on his shoulders: “To have justice—that’s why I am here, because justice will lead to reconciliation. If we address and accept the wrongs on both sides, there will be no reason to avenge them.”

Robin Wainwright, leader of the magi journey, chose to make the entire walk from Iraq on foot. “On the way here, thousands of people have asked us, ”˜Why do you walk? Why do you do this?’” he told the crowds. “We are here to honor Jesus on the 2,000th anniversary of his birth. But what is it to honor Jesus? It is peace and justice.” 

Dr. Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

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