For some Bethlehem Christians, it’s a not-so-merry Christmas

Mahmoud Jaber, a Muslim street vendor, said he shared the concerns expressed by several Christians. Otherwise, he said he completely disagreed with those who talk about anti-Christian discrimination.

Store owners in Bethlehem (photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)
Store owners in Bethlehem
(photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)
Fairouz Ijha, 76, spent several hours on Tuesday greeting tourists, inviting them to buy from her grocery store on Milk Grottos Street a few meters away from Manger Square.
Some of the tourists remembered the Christian business owner from their previous visits. Fairouz and her family have been running the store for more than 45 years.
A tourist named Andrew from the Czech Republic said, “Fairouz is a dear friend in Bethlehem,” as he hugged her. “Every year, when I come to Bethlehem, the first thing I do is go to see Fairouz and her wonderful family.”
Although Fairouz said she was happy to see that some tourists had not forgotten her, she and other Christians offered a gloomy picture of the situation in Bethlehem this Christmas eve. “We don’t feel happy,” she said. “Business is very bad, and many people have no work. It’s been another hard day for me and my family.
You see many tourists and visitors from Jerusalem and Nazareth, but they hardly buy anything.”
Fairouz and other Christians said they missed the days when Manger Square was open mostly for Christians during Christmas celebrations.“The situation in Bethlehem was much better when the Jordanians were here,” said souvenir merchant Elias Mansour. “Then, Muslims were banned from entering Manger Square so that there would be enough room for Christians and tourists.
Today, you see more Muslims celebrating Christmas than Christians. In the past few years, you see more Muslims than Christians in Manger Square.”
When asked about the large number of people who had filled Manger Square since morning, Fairouz explained, “Many of them are Muslims. We feel as if Christmas has become a holiday for Muslims.”
Both Fairouz and Mansour said the situation in Bethlehem was “even better” when Israel was in control of the city after the Six Day War in 1967.
But some of their Christian and Muslims friends disagree, claiming that the situation was better under the PA. Fairouz explained, “We were much happier when the Jews were here... The conditions of Christians have worsened since the arrival of the Palestinian Authority. We are suffering from discrimination, and several Christians have been targeted by Muslims in different ways.”
Fairouz said that she has been in court for the past two years, fighting to attain family-owned land that was seized illegally by Muslims. “Each time I ask the judge for permission to speak, he tells me, ‘it’s not your turn yet,’” Fairouz said. “If I were a Muslim, I would have been treated differently.”
A Christian school teacher who identified herself as Diana said that discrimination against Christians is not new and has in fact increased. She said the PA police have “separate rules” for Muslims and Christians. “If, for example, there’s a car accident involving a Christian and a Muslim, the police always side with the Muslim,” she said.
One of her relatives from the nearby town of Bet Sahur had fallen victim to the alleged discrimination, she added.
A senior PA security official in Bethlehem denied the allegations, emphasizing that Christians and Muslims are treated equally. “Some Christians use personal disputes [with Muslims] as an excuse to complain about discrimination,” the official argued. “In fact, we are very sensitive to the needs and feelings of our Christian brothers and sisters. No one is above the law.”
The official spoke hours before PA President Mahmoud Abbas and senior Palestinian officials were expected to arrive in Bethlehem to attend the traditional Christmas Eve mass.
Dozens of PA police officers sealed off the main entrances to Manger Square early Tuesday, as part of preparations for Abbas’s arrival.
PA policemen were present at checkpoints, which were set up at the entrances to Bethlehem and the nearby towns of Bet Sahur and Bet Jala.
Johnny Nassar, an Arab-Israeli Christian accountant from the Galilee said, “The security measures are good, but they should be limiting the number of non-Christians entering Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity during Christmas.”
He had arrived in Bethlehem on Monday with his wife and daughters. “We have nothing against Muslims, but we would like the authorities here to give priority to Christian visitors and pilgrims.
We already have thousands of tourists from all around the world in the city, and there isn’t enough room in Manger Square. I also heard that some Muslim men have been harassing Christian women, and that’s not good. I hope the Palestinian police prevent these thugs from entering the holy site.”
Earlier this week, PA Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’ayah revealed that the number of tourists who visited the Palestinian territories during 2019 exceeded three million.
Some Christian shopkeepers said they saw no reason for joy in light of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who crowded Bethlehem since the beginning of the year. “Most of the tourists come to Bethlehem for a few hours only,” said Eman Hazbun, a 38-year-old Christian who works at a souvenir shop near Manger Square. “The tourists spend most of their money in Israel. They come to Bethlehem only to visit the Church of Nativity. Most of them don’t buy anything.”
According to Hazbun, those who say that the economy in Bethlehem is “very good” are either lying or deceiving themselves. “We also hold Israel responsible for the crisis because of its security measures and restrictions,” she said. “We would like to see Israel remove all the walls and checkpoints. There’s no reason for all these strict measures because the situation has been calm for the past several years.”
Hazbun and other Christmas claimed that Israeli tour companies often advise their clients not to shop in Palestinian-owned businesses, while Fairouz said that many of the tourists she met recently are foreign workers who don’t have much money. “But they are still welcome in Bethlehem,” Fairouz said. “We want to see as many visitors as possible. We want to see everyone here happy. We want to see an end to discrimination against Christians. We hope that the PA will improve its treatment of Christians.”
Mahmoud Jaber, a Muslim street vendor from a village near Bethlehem who earns a living selling colorful necklaces and postcards on Milk Grotto Street said he shared the concerns expressed by several Christians, but disagreed with the claims to anti-Christian discrimination. “Don’t believe them,” Jaber said. “There is no discrimination against or persecution of Christians. It’s all nonsense. We are one people. I fully understand the fears of Christians, who have become a minority in Bethlehem.
But what can we do about that? We need to continue living together in peace and harmony. Christians need to respect Muslims, and Muslims need to respect Christians and make sure they feel safe and comfortable – especially on Christmas eve.”