Christmas in Bethlehem this year will be more somber than joyful, reflecting the same tense security situation that also dimmed the bright lights of Hanukka recently.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal will leave the capital at the head of the traditional festive motorcade for Bethlehem, where he will lead Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity.
But the spirit of Yasser Arafat is due to play the Ghost of Christmas Past once again at Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, his empty chair in the Church of the Nativity symbolizing the legacy of terrorism he has bequeathed the region.
Three Christmases are celebrated in Bethlehem: December 25 is the traditional date observed by Roman Catholics and the Protestant denominations, but Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6, and Armenian Orthodox Christians on January 19.
Lots of celebrations – but fewer and fewer Christians.
Bethlehem’s Christian population has declined drastically since the Palestinian Authority took control in December 1995. Once 90 percent of the population, Christians now comprise less than 25%, according to Israeli survey information.
About 35,000 Christians live in the West Bank and 3,000 in Gaza, or about 1.3% of the Palestinian population.
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Islam is the official religion of the PA, which has been Islamicizing Bethlehem since Arafat’s takeover. The area of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur – predominantly Christian for centuries – has been transformed by the injection of Muslim residents; some 60% of Christian families have fled, and Muslims now constitute 75% of the population.
The remaining Christians, many of whom work in tourism, report that the number of tourists to Bethlehem this fall was half the number in previous years. The Christmas tree was lit in Manger Square last week, but the usual fireworks were absent – instead, the churches rang their bells.
Significantly, in Manger Square a group of young Palestinian activists erected a “resistance tree” – the trunk of an ancient olive tree supposedly bulldozed by the IDF – and decorated it with empty tear gas canisters fired by troops to disperse demonstrations.
For centuries, Bethlehem was largely Christian. However, one of the first things Arafat did when the PA took control of the town in 1995 was to expand its boundaries to ensure a Muslim majority by incorporating more than 30,000 Muslims from nearby refugee camps. The PLO leader then sealed his takeover by replacing the Christian-dominated city council with a predominantly Muslim leadership.
Perhaps nothing signified the change in Bethlehem’s fortunes more than the occupation of the Church of the Nativity by Arafat’s terrorists in 2002. The Muslim gunmen, fleeing pursuit by IDF troops, took over the church and seized a number of hostages. They desecrated the place for more than a month in a stalemate, knowing that Israel would not attack the church to force their surrender.
Such a record belies Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Christmas message, urging the world to defend Palestinians from Israel. “Jesus is a symbol for all Palestinians...a Palestinian messenger of love,” Abbas said.
Indeed, Yasser Arafat himself claimed that Jesus was the first Palestinian shahid (martyr).
Muslim desecration of Christian and Jewish shrines is a matter of record. Historically, both Jews and Christians are considered dhimmis, or second-class citizens, in Islamic society and are victimized accordingly. The PA territories, in accordance with Article 7 of the Palestinian Authority Constitution, are subject to Shari’a or Islamic law.
Since the War of Independence, Arab Christian communities have suffered from a different sort of “occupation” in the West Bank: Muslim refugees were cynically settled in their midst in camps to serve as a weapon against Israel.
Before the war, Ramallah was 90% Christian and Bethlehem was 80% Christian. By 1967, more than half of Bethlehem’s residents were Muslim, while Ramallah is a large Muslim city today.
Palestinian Christians feel they have to speak out against Israeli “occupation,” because if they don’t, Muslims would perceive their silence as tacit support for Israel.
World Christian leaders who remain silent about the plight of Palestinian Christians blithely ignore one of the favorite slogans of the true target of Palestinian “resistance”: “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.”
First the Jews, then the Christians – a slogan daubed on many local churches. To our Christian readers, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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