Hoping for a miracle

There's little Christmas cheer in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

nun in e jlem 298 (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
nun in e jlem 298
(photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
The Christmas spirit has reached Nazareth, some parts of Haifa, and southern Tel-Aviv. Even the Candyland shop at the Malha Mall has a festive display of Santas. But the spirit seems to have missed its most quintessential location, the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Just a few days before Christmas, there were few shoppers in the Old City. A dozen South American pilgrims, several Israelis, a few local housewives and two or three Franciscan monks hastily made their way though the gloomy streets, with hardly any Christmas decorations to brighten their way. According to data provided by the Ministry of Tourism, approximately 80,000 tourists and pilgrims are expected to arrive in Israel over the Christmas period. More than 30,000 are expected to cross from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At least on paper, these numbers are significantly larger than last year's. But off the paper, on the street, these tourists and pilgrims are nowhere to be found, neither in Jerusalem nor in Bethlehem. The vendors nonchalantly sip their coffee in their shops. They've already seen it all. But they admit that even they are concerned about the situation. Jawwad, a vendor in a small antiquities shop in the Christian Quarter, still has hopes that the Tourism Ministry's forecast will come true, although even income from all the sales that he will sell if it does will still never cover the debt he took upon himself years ago to pay for the shop. "During the Intifada it seemed to us that we'd hit rock bottom. But now it looks like the situation has deteriorated even further. There are no tanks in Bethlehem, nor car bombings in Jerusalem, thank God, but the Christian Quarter has not snapped back," he complains. "Why aren't there any decorations?" he asks, then answers himself, "because we do not feel particularly happy these days. Also, we cannot afford costly lights for our shops and streets" Jawwad believes that the Tourism Ministry and the Municipality should provide holiday season lighting. "But apparently they are not interested in attracting tourists to this part of the town. They know that the pilgrims will come to the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulcher in any case, but the authorities prefer that the pilgrims and tourists spend their money in west Jerusalem," he says. His neighbor, George Khuri, owner of a store that sells religious decorations, says that no more than a dozen or so shoppers have come into his shop over the last week. The shiny garlands and sparkling lights used to sell like hot cakes before the Intifada, he says, but today people hardly spend any money for this kind of luxury. Today, Christians make up only about two percent of the total population in Jerusalem. Khuri adds, "If the situation continues to deteriorate, then even the remaining Christian population of Jerusalem will go abroad." Income isn't the only problem. "Last year, as the separation barrier became a fact, we realized that our small communities have been cut off from each other. In the past, many of our customers used to come from Bethlehem, Ramallah, Taybeh and other Christian cities and villages in the West Bank, as people were used to visit each other and celebrate the holiday together. Today, there is not much hope that this situation will ever return to what it was". Mother Agapia, a nun in Mary Magdalene convent who came to Israel nine years ago from New York, tells about her personal experience in the city of three religions. "Today, unfortunately, I do not even feel comfortable to go though the Christian Quarter. I feel as though I, a Christian nun, am not wanted here. I'm often harassed at check-points by solders and policemen, who say rather hurtful words." She adds, "None of this happened to me prior to the Intifada. Today, I feel that the government of Israel is interested in diminishing the Christian presence as much as possible, even in the Holy City". In contrast with gloomy Jerusalem, Bethlehem displays its lights and decorations proudly. The square in front of the Nativity Church is lit at night, and, for the tourists, only the snow is missing to complete the Christmas scene that they know from their homes in Europe and the US. But the bright city contrasts sharply with the faces of the people. Here too, there were high expectation from this Christmas season, but the tourists are nowhere to be seen and the shopkeepers are afraid that they may not come at all. According to a press release from the Tourism Ministry, the Tourism Ministry has opened a bureau at the 24-hour crossing point between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in order to ensure the smooth passage of tourists traveling between the two cities. A small group of tourists from Hong Kong, who reveal that they had to make their way through the checkpoint on foot, while their bus took a separate route, said, "It took a while, but it wasn't bad. And anyway, this is not something that would stop a true Christian from visiting the birthplace of Jesus on Christmas," concludes Robert Lo, a member of the group. But Mother Agapia says that some Christians are definitely going to be stopped here. The Separation Barrier has separated families and severed social, religious, economic and commercial ties. The sadness is palpable. "The Christians from Bethlehem cannot cross the barrier and go into Jerusalem. The barrier splits the community. The situation is simply ridiculous - the residents of Beit Jala and Abu-Dis cannot go and pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, although from Abu Dis they can look at it! "Visits to holy Christian sites, such as the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River have become impossible," she continues. "Let's put it this way: if Mary and Joseph were to undertake the journey between Nazareth and Bethlehem today - they wouldn't make it." A Santa is hurrying through the streets of Bethlehem, late for a show with children in one of the local prep schools. He says that he will be able to visit his sister, who is married and lives in Jerusalem. But he will not be able to visit with his other sisters and brothers, because they hold Palestinian ID cards, while he holds an Israeli ("blue") ID card. "We are not terrorists," he protests. "We have lived here all our life. Why is it not possible for us to go freely to visit our relatives and to pray in our churches?" This Santa wishes that he'd get some true Santa powers for Christmas to be able to provide the necessary paperwork. Mother Agapia believes that this is exactly the recipe for disaster. "Some people will be able to cross and go back and forth, earn their living and visit their families, while others won't. How long do you think all of them will live in peace and quiet until the problems will erupt?" Yet, despite all the problems, Mother Agapia says that the Christians in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a very strong spirit, which allows them to embrace the holiday joyfully and forget about the problems, if only for a little while. "We do not fight with arms and bombs. Our weapon is our faith and our cross. We hope for peace and wish that it will eventually come to Jerusalem, the city of three religions," said the nun, while closing the gates of the convent.