(photo credit: AP)
Today is Christmas throughout most of the Christian world. For the faithful, the holiday marks the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Christian tradition teaches that Jesus was divine as well as the messiah, and sent to fulfill biblical prophesies. He was, of course, a Jew - and the Jews' rejection of him, and of the Trinity, led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and contempt for Judaism.
Mercifully, there have been tremendous ecumenical advances in relations between Christians and Jews, especially since the Holocaust. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Israel next year. Pope John Paul II came in 2000. The Holy See and the Jewish state established relations in 1994. And some of Israel's greatest benefactors are affiliated with vibrant evangelical churches. In October, 35,000 Protestant pilgrims participated in the annual Feast of Tabernacles parade in Jerusalem.
Still, some mainline US and UK churches have redefined their Christian faith, making political activism their raison d'Ãªtre and, foremost, championing the Palestinian Arab cause at the expense of the Zionist enterprise. Some have even joined British campaigners who are exploiting Christmas themes as propaganda tools against Israel.
Sovereign in their own land, some Jews have, disappointingly, not always shown tolerance toward their Christian brethren. The most disgraceful recent presumed manifestation of such bigotry is the still unsolved April bombing at the home of a Christian pastor in Ariel that left his 16-year-old son seriously wounded. In June, Orthodox fanatics in Or Yehuda burned copies of the New Testament; in a number of towns extremists regularly harass tiny congregations of Jewish converts to Christianity who call themselves Messianic Jews.
LAST NIGHT, Israel Television (along with radio's Arabic service) broadcast the Roman Catholic Mass live from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. By tradition, this is where the Virgin Mary received the news from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus.
Meanwhile in Bethlehem, which is under the jurisdiction of Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority on the other side of Israel's life-saving security barrier, thousands attended Christmas Mass at the Catholic Church of Saint Catherine, which adjoins the mostly Orthodox Church of the Nativity, the traditional place of Jesus' birth.
Christian Arab citizens of Israel have been permitted to cross into Bethlehem for the holiday, and the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria has granted permission to 15,000 Palestinian Christians to visit their families inside the Green Line. Several hundred Christians from Gaza have also received permission to enter Bethlehem.
Hotels there are full. Christians in the West Bank, like other Palestinian Arabs there, are enjoying a mild economic boon following the ruinous second intifada, which tapered off around 2005. With Yasser Arafat now gone and the PA in the hands of relative moderates, Israel has been able to facilitate an improvement in the quality of life for West Bankers. Over 100 security checkpoints have been lifted, making it easier for locals to traverse the territory. Unemployment is down, though still too high; the local economy has grown by 4-5 percent. An unusually good olive harvest has boosted spirits; wages are up, and trade has risen by 35%.
None of this is to suggest that things are as they could be. Until the fragmented Palestinian leadership is both willing and able to conclude a peace deal with Israel, and pending an improvement in the worldwide recession, further development will likely be sluggish.
CHRISTIANITY REMAINS the world's biggest religion, with about 2.1 billion followers. Paradoxically, in the Holy Land, their numbers are meager. There are only about 160,000 Christians in Israel - about 2.1 percent of the population, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Approximately 80 percent are Arabs; most of the rest emigrated here from the former Soviet Union.
There are in addition some 35,000 Christians in the West Bank and 3,000 beleaguered believers under Hamas rule in Gaza, where a number of Christian institutions, among them the YMCA, have been bombed by Islamist fundamentalists. Christian Arabs, about 1.3 percent of the Palestinian population, nevertheless tend to identify culturally with the Palestinian cause.
THE CHRISTIAN world shares many values and concerns with the Jewish people. As we wish Christians everywhere Merry Christmas, we hope for ever stronger ties and increased mutual respect.