Bethlehem’s rich history can be fully appreciated only by walking its streets. Coming to Bethlehem is a unique experience that I would encourage everyone to pursue.
Unfortunately, while visitors to Bethlehem have increased in number during the past year, many are unable to explore the city properly. Under Israeli occupation, obstacles hindering the normal development of tourism in Palestine have prevented people from experiencing what Bethlehem has to offer.
For example, I often hear from Palestinian priests that, “In this land, we receive many tourists yet very few pilgrims.” This is one consequence of Israel’s monopoly over the tourist industry. Israel has little interest in encouraging visitors to interact with Palestinians or to learn about their heritage.
The Church of the Nativity is of seminal importance to all Christians. And yet we still must go to great lengths to persuade people to visit it. Even more shocking, when we sought to list the church as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, some countries, succumbing to Israeli and American pressure, opposed the designation.
Still, we succeeded, and we are now busy with the important work of preserving this cherished site. I am proud to say that this will be the last Christmas before the restoration of the church is complete. Soon, visitors will be able to see newly discovered mosaics and the church’s original floor, all of which date back to the fourth century. After that, they can visit other landmarks of the Old City, including Star Street, the pilgrimage route taken by Joseph and Mary.
The richness of the city has long been documented, including by European explorers who visited in the 19th century. In the Frenchman Victor Guerin’s Description of Palestine, published in 1875, one finds a city full of life, and divided into at least eight quarters. Visitors encountered the splendid architecture of the Anatra quarter, and learned about Palestine’s oldest still-functioning school, the Terra Sancta College, which dates back to 1598. The same cannot be said for most visitors today.
Bethlehem’s cuisine is also a treasure. From fresh baked goods, falafel, and hummus to a chef’s table stocked with produce from the Battir Gardens, Bethlehem’s richness of fare is rare for a small city. Battir Gardens, another World Heritage Site just 15 minutes from the city center, offers agricultural terraces, hiking trails, vines, and olives that offset the Israeli settlements and walls encircling the city. As a result of those settlements, the Palestinian government’s remit applies to a mere 13 percent of the district’s total land area.
Bethlehem is no stranger to the challenges facing all of Palestine. The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has encouraged the Israeli government to increase colonization in and around East Jerusalem, which severely affects Bethlehem.
But the scars of occupation do not tell the whole story. The thousands of Palestinians who have stayed in Bethlehem, despite the constant struggle, comprise a thriving and creative civil society, including artists, human rights organizations and business people.
The reality for Palestinians today is captured perfectly in a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” To that we might add, “‘Hope, hope’ when there is no hope,” because it is our responsibility to keep hope alive. The spirit of hope is what keeps Bethlehem shining brightly, even in the darkness of occupation.
Though Christian Zionists like US Vice President Mike Pence make cynical use of the Bible to justify oppression of the Palestinians, we are nonetheless determined to stand up for Christ’s message of justice, love, and peace. There is nothing divine about the system of apartheid emerging around us. The illegal wall that has been built through the heart of our city is antithetical to justice and freedom.
For the rest of the world, Bethlehem is and must remain a symbol of hope. As home to centuries-old cosmopolitan architecture and dozens of churches, the city is a bastion of inclusion. But Bethlehem also hosts three refugee camps, which is a reminder of the injustice visited upon Palestinians during the Nakba (catastrophe), when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, expelled from their homes in 1948, sought refuge here.
After more than 2,000 years, Bethlehem’s message of hope remains unchanged. All are invited to come experience it firsthand.
Anton Salman is a lawyer and the mayor of Bethlehem. -- Ed.