Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2007, pages 56-57

Christianity and the Middle East

Open Bethlehem Exposes Israel’s Systematic Strangulation of the Holy City

By Pat McDonnell Twair

Bethlehem surrounded by barbed wire and Israel’s annexation wall (Photo courtesy Sari Khour).

DESPITE MANY reports on how Israel’s apartheid wall is subdividing Bethlehem, the magnitude of Israel’s systematic takeover of the ancient city’s holy relics, as documented in an Open Bethlehem power point presentation, was shocking.

Since the brother and sister team of Maxim and Leila Sansour launched Open Bethlehem in November 2005 (see Jan./Feb. 2006Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 69), they’ve been bringing the plight of the endangered cradle of Christianity to the attention of church leaders the world over.

During a Jan. 22 presentation in All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA, Maxim Sansour explained that when the second Muslim Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, set eyes on Bethlehem in the mid-7th century, he realized it was an extraordinarily important Christian shrine, and decreed that Muslims were not to disturb a single stone of the holy site.

“A pledge was made between Christians and Muslims to live in peaceful coexistence,” Sansour emphasized, “and this has been the model Bethlehemites have emulated for centuries.”

Now Israel’s illegal wall has turned Bethlehem into a prison for its inhabitants. The formidable barrier has cut off 70 percent of Bethlehem’s agricultural lands from the urban center. His grandfather owns five acres of farmland, Sansour noted, but has been notified that Israel is confiscating it for “security purposes.”

“Contemporary Bethlehem is a multi-faith society with a population of 170,000 Palestinians in the district and 75,000 in the city of Bethlehem,” he told his audience. “We have 22 churches and 14 mosques, but the Christians are rapidly emigrating, so the population is about 30 percent Christian and 70 percent Muslim.”

Claire Anastus (inset) stands by a window in her Bethlehem home, located near Rachel’s Tomb and surrounded by Israel’s annexation wall (above) (Photos courtesy open Bethlehem).

Sansour, who holds an MBA from the City University of New York, recalled that in June 2006 two congressmen tried to pass a resolution condemning Palestinian Muslims for driving Christians out of Bethlehem.

“Open Bethlehem immediately notified the congressmen that it was Israeli practices that are forcing Christians out of Bethlehem, not Muslims,” Sansour said. “As far as we know, the resolution was shelved.”

More than 170,000 Israelis are living in 27 settlements that encircle and encroach upon Bethlehem, Sansour noted. “These are not natural expansion, but deliberate measures to block the growth of Palestinian Bethlehem. The really scary settlement is Har Homa,” he said, “which is intended to be an alternative Bethlehem tourist center. Har Homa doesn’t have Manger Square, but it will bus Christian pilgrims to the Church of the Nativity and after they’ve had their photo-ops with the holy monuments, they will be bused back to the settlement without talking to a Palestinian or buying mementos or eating in restaurants.

“Bethlehem is in a state of emergency,” Sansour warned. “Closures have all but dried up the tourist industry many Palestinian inhabitants relied on. The wall separates Bethlehem from neighboring villages. There are just two exits out of Bethlehem that can be closed on any Israeli pretext. One gate leads to Jerusalem, the other to nearby villages.

“Checkpoints separate the Christian communities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem just as the wall has severed the Basilica of the Nativity from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” he pointed out.

Sansour showed a photo of a terraced hillside that has been carefully tended for more than 2,000 years. The audience audibly gasped when he stated that it is destined to be dismantled for the establishment of yet another Jewish-only settlement.

A map of Israel’s annexation wall around Rachel’s Tomb (Photos courtesy open Bethlehem).

Palestinians are particularly alarmed by a new settlement being built in the heart of Bethlehem, Sansour said. It surrounds Rachel’s Tomb and its residents are militant fundamentalist Jews.

Maxim and Leila Sansour have carved out an arduous task trying to save endangered Bethlehem, but their advocacy work is bringing awareness to the worldwide Christian community. Open Bethlehem is registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Palestine, and as a not-for-profit company in the UK. The Latin Patriarchate has granted Open Bethlehem office space in a heritage site on Manger Square.

Leila, who holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Russia’s Moscow State University, directed and produced TV documentaries in the UK as well as the feature-length film, “Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army.” She and Maxim—both Palestinian residents of Bethlehem—devised an honorary citizenship to be granted to people concerned with the protection of historic Bethlehem.

The first Bethlehem passport was presented by President Mahmoud Abbas to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. This year, honorary Bethlehem passports will be presented to President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the presidents of Finland and Chile, all of whom have expressed interest in receiving them.

Their most successful public relations coup occurred this past Christmas, when Bethlehem was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, and the head of the Armenian Church in England. All were moved by what they witnessed and promised to promote trips by their congregants to Palestinian Bethlehem.

Expressing his dismay over the dissipation of Bethlehem, Archbishop Tutu said: “It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.”

Strangulation is an apt description for what has happened to Palestinian Bethlehemites. A photo of the villa of prominent architect Bassam Khoury showed the elegant home enclosed on three sides by the towering wall.

How will the Palestinian population be able to feed itself if 70 percent of the agricultural land is being confiscated? Sansour asked.

“If the farmers no longer have access to their land, they will have to become laborers,” he explained. “Israel is creating industrial zones where it can use cheap Palestinian workers without letting them into Israel. And, of course, Israel would be happy if the Palestinians opted to emigrate. ”˜Transfer’ is openly discussed on Israeli TV.”

Open Bethlehem asked Zogby pollsters to conduct a survey to see what Americans know about Bethlehem. Only 15 percent were aware that the holy city is in Palestine, not Israel. Many assumed it is a mythical place or no longer exists. More than 70 percent of Americans believed the Muslims are expelling Christians from Bethlehem.

This year the Sansours plan to establish an Open Bethlehem office in Washington, DC and to host a major solidarity concert in Bethlehem. For more information, visit their Web site, <www.openbethlehem.org>. “Tell the World,” Open Bethlehem’s multimedia CD, is available from the AET Book Club.

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Additional information