It was November and Christmas was coming to Bethlehem.
Two years ago, Sherry Khoury drove through the little town.
Decorations were being hung, streets were coming alive with sparkling, colored lights. There were Christmas trees and Santas, snowmen and tinsel lights, angels and twinkling stars. But something was missing. She visited again, looking close, then went home to tell her husband what she had seen, what she could not find.
Sherry’s husband, Steven Khoury, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Bethlehem. Today he is the pastor of Calvary Church in east Jerusalem. His father, Dr.
Naim Khoury, is the founding pastor of First Baptist Church in Bethlehem. Both men are Israeli Arabs. Together their umbrella ministry is called Holy Land Missions.
Every year HLM ministries reaches millions of Arabs in the Palestinian Territories, Gaza and throughout the Middle East. Their message never changes: Jesus was born a Jewish baby in Bethlehem, died an observant Jew in Jerusalem and, fully human, rose from the dead as God’s own rescuer and redeemer for everyone who accepts his rescue, who receives his redemption.
Taking this stand is hazardous.
Because of it, the Khourys have seen their places of worship firebombed and defaced. Church members have been attacked.
Property has been stolen, stones thrown, shots fired. Steven’s uncle was murdered. And his father, Dr. Naim, has been shot at four times over the past 10 years.
So what did Steven do when his wife came home and shared her observation? “I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
“I had to go and see for myself.
Sure enough, she was right.
“Over the years, the heart of Christmas had disappeared from Bethlehem’s celebration. Jesus, the very reason for the season, was no place to be found. Well, almost no place. There was a baby Jesus figure in a shadowy manger scene at the base of a huge and brightly lit Christmas tree in Manger Square.”
BETHLEHEM’S MANGER Square is the center of town. This is the place where all tourists come. On one side of the square is a large Islamic minaret. Although it is the tallest structure around the square and heard by all when prayers to Allah are broadcast four times a day, no one comes to Bethlehem to see or hear the minaret.
Instead, they come to see a shorter structure and, except for its periodic bells, a much quieter one. Opposite the minaret, directly across the square, is the Church of the Nativity. Commissioned in the 4th century CE, it is built over the place where almost all agree that Jesus was born.
“Jesus is the reason pilgrims come to Bethlehem,” Steven says.
“But two years ago, he was missing from the city’s public decorations.
So I decided to do something about it. I authorized our ministry to covertly and quickly create a huge billboard banner for all to see on Manger Street here in Bethlehem. It read, ‘Jesus: Born to Die and Rise Again. Invite Him in Your Heart so that You too Might Live.’” Islam has no problem with Jesus’ birth or with the revenue that his birthday celebration generates.
But it does have a problem with Jesus’ death, resurrection and attending status as God’s savior of all men. Acknowledging these things requires affirmation that Jesus is greater, much greater, than Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.
The 110 sq.m. sign was printed and, in the middle of night, went up on the largest billboard space in the city.
The next day, Steven received a call from someone that worked in the municipality.
“We are getting a lot of complaints about your sign,” said the caller. “People want you to take it down. They don’t like what it says.”
“In other words,” Steven told the caller, “there were no complaints about Jesus missing at Christmas. Instead there are complaints when he appears.”
That night, power cables to the billboard’s lighting system were cut.
In response, Steven drove out to the sign and held a powerful light directly on it. “This is about Jesus,” he said. “This is a war on Jesus.”
For the rest of the season, he sent a van with a large generator and multiple lights, keeping the sign lit every night. In the end, and not without irony, the sign stayed up for several months.
This Christmas, the situation is the same. Jesus is nowhere to be found in public decorations. But the Khourys have put up another billboard. In Arabic and in English, it reads, “Jesus is God’s greatest gift of salvation – for Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and the World. Merry Christmas.”
For such a time as this, Happy Christmas from the Holy Land.
Happy Christmas, indeed.The author is bureau chief for the news division of Bridges for Peace, an international non-profit building bridges of understanding between Jews and Christians in Israel and around the world. He is also the Middle East correspondent for USA Radio Network. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSchrauger. His email address is BSchrauger@bridgesforpeace.com.