Holy Land, Travelogue

Day Three: Oh Desperate Town of Bethlehem

The two greatest locations in the Christian world stand only a few miles apart. The site of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and that of his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Two churches mark these sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Jerusalem, and for the first time in 2000 years the road between the two is closed.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has called this route the existential link between the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Now the massive gray-concrete line of the separation wall has severed this spiritual line, as well cutting off modern day Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

“For the first time in history Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been divided”, says Dr. Jad Ishaq of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), “by the wall and by a wall of Jewish settlements. They are twin cities”, he continues. “Bethlehem cannot survive, it will become a ghetto.”

On this beautiful Tuesday morning, the Church of the Nativity and Nativity Square were virtually deserted. Besides a Japanese couple, our group were the only visitors. Palestinians cannot travel freely about the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the town’s economic lifeblood, tourism, has trickled away.

The Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society had 107 workshop members 7 years ago, now they are down to 47. “Workshop owners are no longer able to secure enough income to support their families. Many that can have already emigrated”, says Suzan Sahori, Holy Land’s Director. Holy Land still continues to supply Fair Trade goods to CRS partner SERRV/A Greater Gift.

Bethlehem is a town of some 50,000 people, of which some 27,000 are Palestinian Christians. The group heard the same message from parents, teachers and students at Terra Santa Girl’s School (ran by the Sister’s of Saint Joseph), and Lutheran School. CRS supports educational projects at both of these schools. “We are in a prison here, and many, many people are without work”, one parent told us. “Come and visit us here and see what we suffer,” she added. “The wall makes our kids feel like they are prisoners in their own town”, said another.

A woman who was a student at the school and is now on the parent-teacher committee said “My daughter has two BAs, one in engineering and one in how to negotiate the Israeli checkpoints to Bir Zeit University.” Bir Zeit is one of only two small universities realistically available to even the very best straight As students. They offer very limited courses and places and university-age students are not free to travel elsewhere to study, even if they could afford it.

Har Homa
Across the valley where 2000 years ago the Shepards heard the Angel’s message of the birth of Jesus, stands the huge Israeli settlement of Har Homa. The settlement is against international law and the Oslo Peace Accord, but it is very real and very large. It looks like a large, modern and up-market condo development on a hilltop.

No fewer than four of these settlements surround the village of Nahaleen. CRS has funded a water irrigation project in the village that has benefited 800 needy families. The villages told us that there agricultural land is now being damaged, and their water polluted, by the sewage run off from the settlements up on the hilltops.

West Bank Irrigation Project
The line of the sewage run is clear to see down the hillside, straight to the spring in the valley and through an olive grove.

Back at Terra Santa Girl’s School one of the girls had told us that she had visited Nahaleen. She was heartened to hear that the villagers told her that there were not going to leave, and that there were strongly connected to their land.

She added:”I hope that we can meet American Kids. They can come to our Holy Land and see the Holy places. We are not terrorists, we love to live! We can show them our culture and they can learn how we live.”

One of the principal drivers of CRS’s education projects in seven schools in the West Bank is cultural enrichment and exposure for these youths whose lives are so closed because of travel restrictions.

Susan Atala, an English Teacher at Terra Santa enthused “I’m trying to give a voice to my students. They are women in an Arab society surrounded by a wall. I want them to know that they can make a difference in their own society and this is what the (CRS) project is letting us do.”

A similar CRS project is running at the nearby Deheisheh refugee camp where Palestinians have been living for 60 years. “We are trying to open holes in the walls,” says Zead Abbas, referring to the isolation of the 6,000 children in the camp. Abbas is now 43 and was born in the camp. He is the Director of the camp’s cultural center.

“They are missing their childhoods. We are isolated from the rest of the world, but through our cultural projects this is one way that we can build bridges to learn about others and to teach others about us”, he explains.

All of Bethlehem’s Palestinians are living in a historic prison, but it was clear to the group that the young feel the pull of their shackles most of all, as they dream of the wide world beyond them and imagine what their futures hold. A world denied to them.

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3 Responses to “Day Three: Oh Desperate Town of Bethlehem”

  1. craig giles Says:

    to Brian Backe

    Hi brian I shared your address and in fact gave eachscout a witten copy at the meeting monday night, hopefully you will get some replys
    I am finding the pictures and written pieces fasinating. May God watch over you and each member of your group and the people you meet. peace craig

  2. Brian Backe Says:

    Thanks Craig — I will try to meet with the group of Palestian Christian Arabs Boy Scouts tommorow night for a little while. These scouts are located in the Old City of Jerusalem. If I can get some photos, I will bring them to the Monday meeting..

    We have one more day in East Jerusalem and then home on Friday.

    Take care,


  3. Matthew Price Says:

    Hi Daddy (Tom Price),
    How is it going? It’s interesting to learn about Jerusalem. Why are they fighting? Can I go there one day? I miss you. See you soon. Love from Matthew (age 7)

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