Israel confirms appointment of Greek Orthodox Patriarch

Related to my last post, on Bethlehem, is some wondeful news from the Holy Land:

Two years later, Israel confirms appointment of Greek Orthodox Patriarch
The Associated Press
Published: December 16, 2007

JERUSALEM: More than two years after he was sworn
in as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy
Land, Theofilos III on Sunday finally won the
approval of the Israeli government, putting an
end to a lengthy international saga with
religious, political and financial elements.

Theofilos took office under unusual
circumstances. His predecessor, Irineos I, was
ousted in May 2005 after allegations that he
leased church land in east Jerusalem to Jewish
groups interested in expanding their presence in
the Arab section. The long-term leases enraged
the church’s predominantly Palestinian flock.
Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Theofilos petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to
get the state to recognize him, since under
church rules he must be approved by all
governments in the areas where his flock lives —
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The
latter two immediately approved, but Israel
deferred, awaiting word from a committee it
established to examine the appointment.

Over the past two years, Israel neither
recognized the naming of Theofilos, nor the
removal of Irineos, who still resides in the same
Jerusalem Old City compound as his replacement
while openly challenging his authority. Irineos
never officially resigned and continued to enjoy
the support of Israel — who invited him to
official events and provided him with police protection.

On Sunday, the government finally approved
Theofilos by a vote of 10 to 3. The opponents all
belonged to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party,
who raised reservations about Theofilos’ reported
commitment to blocking any future sale of lands to Jews.

Theofilos, 55, has said he will not recognize any
land deals signed by Irineos. He has accused
Israel of not recognizing him in an effort to
extort his support for the lease of the property,
which includes two hotels and several shops.

Sunday’s vote seemed to put an end to the latest drama.

“This is a patriarch who has to maneuver between
three political entities — Israel, Jordan and the
Palestinians — as well as between the Church
hierarchy, which is Greek, and the laity, which
is Arab,” said Daniel Rossing, head of the
Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.
“Every day you survive is an accomplishment. It’s
like playing chess in six dimensions.”

Property dealings are highly sensitive to the
Greek Orthodox Church, which is one of the major
land owners in Israel and the Palestinian
territories, giving it influence far beyond its
90,000-member flock. The church’s high-profile
holdings include historic buildings in
Jerusalem’s Old City, prime real estate in
Jerusalem and the site of some Israeli government buildings.

The leasing sparked an open mutiny against
Irineos by followers and rebel clerics. World
Greek Orthodox leaders stopped recognizing his
authority, and a church tribunal in Jerusalem
defrocked him and demoted him to the rank of monk.

Irineos was implicated in deals selling Old City
properties to Ateret Cohanim, a group that
champions Jewish settlement of mostly Arab
sections of east Jerusalem. He denied he was
involved in the sale but refused to cancel it.

Irineos’ 2004 appointment to the post of
Patriarch was also controversial. Israel approved
him after a two-year delay, accusing him of being
too sympathetic to the Palestinians. A year
earlier, Irineos accused a senior priest and
rival of hiring a Palestinian hit squad to assassinate him.

Bethlehem 2007 A.D.

During this Nativity season, pray for the place of Christ’s Birth and especially for the Christians there.

Bethlehem 2007 A.D.
Michael Finkel, National Geographic

December 15, 2007

The birthplace of Jesus is today one of the most
contentious places on Earth. Israelis fear
Bethlehem’s radicalized residents, who seethe at
the concrete wall that surrounds them.

This is not how Mary and Joseph came into
Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You
wait at the wall. It’s a daunting concrete
barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor
wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you’re
at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with
assault rifles examine your papers. They search
your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military
order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents
are permitted out—the reason the wall exists
here, according to the Israeli government, is to
keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart
(ten kilometers), though in the compressed and
fractious geography of the region, this places
them in different realms. It can take a month for
a postcard to go from one city to the other.
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by
Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It’s a
Palestinian city; the majority of its 35,000
residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90
percent of the city was Christian. Today
Bethlehem is only about one-third Christian, and
this proportion is steadily shrinking as
Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At
least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the
city and surrounding district. The truth is that
Bethlehem, the “little town” venerated during
Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth.

If you’re cleared to enter, a sliding steel door,
like that on a boxcar, grinds open. The soldiers
step aside, and you drive through the temporary
gap in the wall. Then the door slides back,
squealing on its track, booming shut. You’re in Bethlehem.

The city, at the scrabbly hem of the Judaean
desert, is built over several broad, flat-topped
hills, stingy with vegetation. The older homes
are made of pale yellow stone, wedged along
steep, narrow streets. A couple of battered taxis
ply the roads, drivers heavy on the horns. At an
outdoor stall, lamb meat rotates on a spit,
dripping fat. Men sit on plastic chairs and sip
from small glasses of thick Arabic coffee.
There’s an odor of uncollected garbage. As you
work your way up the hill, you can see the scope
of the wall and chart its ongoing expansion—a
gray snake, segmented by cylindrical guard
towers, methodically constricting the city.

Inside the wall, along Bethlehem’s borders, are
three Palestinian refugee camps, boxy apartments
heaped atop one another in haphazard piles. Every
breeze through the camps’ alleys ruffles the
corners of hundreds of martyrs’ posters—young
men, staring impassively, some gripping M-16s.
Many are victims of the Israel Defense Forces.
Others have blown themselves up in an Israeli
mall or restaurant or bus. Arabic text on the
posters extols the greatness of these deeds.

Just outside the wall, dominating the surrounding
high points and ridges, are sprawling Jewish
settlements, skewered with construction cranes,
feverishly growing. Late in the afternoon the sun
glints off the settlement buildings and Bethlehem seems circled by fire.

At the summit of Bethlehem’s central hill is
Manger Square, a cobblestoned plaza fronting the
Church of the Nativity. The tallest and most
prominent structure here is a mosque. Many of the
gift shops are shuttered, relics of a more
peaceful time. Tourism is low; religious pilgrims
are shuttled in and out by guides—a quick stop at
Manger Square, then a speedy departure down the
hill and back out through the wall, returning to
Jerusalem. Hotels are mostly empty. Few visitors
spend the night. Unemployment in Bethlehem, by
the mayor’s estimate, is 50 percent, and many
families are living from meal to meal.

The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It
looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet
thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation.
Perhaps this is why it has survived 14 centuries:
Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture.
A spot at the crossroads of the world—the busy
intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa—means a
perpetual rush hour of invading armies. The
church has endured conquests by Persian,
Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman,
Jordanian, British, and Israeli forces. The
entrance, reduced in size over the centuries,
perhaps to prevent access by travelers’ horses
and camels, has shrunk to a miniature hole. You
nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through.

The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as
spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an
open nave lead to the main altar. There are no
pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs.
But beneath the altar, down a set of worn
limestone steps, is a small cave. In the rural
areas of Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years
ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens. Mangers
are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull’s-eye
of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish
settlements, imprisoned within a wall, encircled
by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of
minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient
church, is a silver star. This, it’s believed, is where Jesus was born.

Some of the people you meet around Bethlehem
quote from the Bible, some recite from the Koran,
some chant from the Torah. Some show you their
fields, some point to their olive groves; some
invoke history, some envision the future. Some
pray with knees on the ground, some with
foreheads on the ground, some with feet firmly
planted but with torsos turning and swaying. Some
throw stones and some drive tanks and some wrap
themselves with explosives. But when you get
right down to it, when you boil away the hatred
and the politics and the wars that have shaken
the planet, the one thing most people are talking
about, when it comes to Bethlehem, is land. A
tiny scrap of land. A wind-scoured, water-starved, rock-strewn bit of ground.

The Jews got here first. That’s what the rabbi
says. Rabbi Menachem Froman lives in the Jewish
settlement of Tekoa, perched on a mesa, a clean
collection of bleached stone houses capped with
red-tiled roofs, double strollers parked on
several porches. Fifteen hundred people live
here. From the north side of Tekoa, Froman can
view all of Bethlehem; the Muslim call to prayer
drifts over the settlement five times a day,
steady as a train schedule. To the south are the
bald brown knolls of the Judaean wilderness,
where Jesus is thought to have fasted for 40
days, and the deep ravines that tumble down,
down, down, falling below sea level—even the
terrain here seems to defy reason—and then
plunging still, to Earth’s lowest point, the Dead Sea.

“This is not just land,” says Froman, his long
white beard spilling from his chin, unruly as a
river rapid. “This is the Holy Land. There’s no
oil, no gold, no diamonds. It’s a desert! But
this is God’s palace.” Froman is 62 years old; he
can count back 17 generations of rabbis in his
family. He’s the 18th. His son is also a rabbi.

He was born in what is now Israel but was then,
during World War II, known as the British Mandate
for Palestine (the British began governing the
region in 1922, following the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire). After World War II, in the wake
of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted to
partition the region into two states—one Jewish,
one Arab. Jews accepted the plan, Arabs did not.
Fighting between Arabs and Jews began even before
Israel declared independence, in 1948, and the
ensuing war resulted in about 750,000
Palestinians fleeing their native villages, many
of them forced to do so by the Israeli army. Many
relocated to the West Bank of the Jordan River,
administered by Jordan, or the Gaza Strip,
governed by Egypt. These were the first Palestinian refugees.

Then, in 1967, Israel defeated the military
forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon
in six chaotic days and occupied, among other
lands, the West Bank, a place many Israelis refer
to by its biblical name, Judaea and Samaria. This
initiated the settlement movement—Jews
establishing homesites throughout the newly won territory.

Froman was one of the first to go. He believes,
as do many settlers, that the Jews’ deed to
Judaea and Samaria is spelled out in the Old
Testament. They are the landlords. Froman
therefore feels he has the right, granted from
God, to live here. In the district of Bethlehem,
which includes the city and neighboring villages,
there are about 180,000 Palestinians, of whom
25,000 or so are Christian (virtually all living
in urban Bethlehem and two satellite towns, Beit
Jala and Beit Sahur). Woven into this map are 22
Jewish settlements, with a population approaching
80,000, and at least a dozen more frontier-style
squatter encampments known as outposts, often no
more than a ring of dilapidated mobile homes,
like Conestoga wagons around a campfire.

Just looking out his window in Tekoa, Froman sees
why everyone craves a piece of this land. For
Jews still awaiting their Messiah, Froman says
it’s possible that he will arrive right here, in
the eroded backcountry of Bethlehem, the presence
of God palpable in the desert’s sandpaper wind.
For Christians anticipating their Messiah’s
return, why shouldn’t he come back to the spot he
was born? Muslims do not believe in a
messiah—there is only Allah, only God—but
Palestinian Muslims also revere this land as
sacred, since Jesus is one of their prophets.
Also Bethlehem and the surrounding West Bank, as
well as the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, are where
they hope to establish a viable homeland.

The United Nations, the European Union, and the
International Court of Justice have declared the
Israeli settlements illegal, a violation of the
Geneva Convention that prohibits occupying powers
from allowing its citizens to populate the
territory it occupies. The Israeli government,
though, provides easy loans to those seeking
houses in West Bank settlements. One of the
largest in the Bethlehem area is called Har Homa.
Its gleaming high-rises stand so close to
Bethlehem—just across the wall—that it seems as
if you could hold your arm out on a Palestinian
street corner and hail a cab in Har Homa. It has
become a full-fledged suburb, with 2,000
Israelis. About half of all settlers consider
themselves nonreligious, and real estate ads in
Har Homa, plastered on numerous billboards,
stress the town’s secular advantages. Reasonable
prices; great location; such an easy commute to
Jerusalem! Har Homa exemplifies an Israeli
strategy known as “facts on the ground”: The more
Jews who live in a concentrated area on the east
side of the so-called Green Line—the armistice
line established in 1949 following Israel’s war
of independence— the more likely the area will
become part of Israel if the region is divided
into two countries. Palestinians still refer to
Har Homa by its original name, Jabal Abu
Ghuneim—in Arabic, “mountain of the shepherd.” It
used to be one of the last open spaces in
Bethlehem, a pine-shaded hillside where shepherds
tended their flocks, and had done so since
biblical times. Construction began in 1997; the
land was shaved flat and stacked with apartment
towers. Not one Palestinian who owned acreage was
compensated. Its new name means “walled mountain” in Hebrew.

The settlements are designed to feel like safe,
suburban oases, but they are not. The presence of
settlers, so close to Palestinian towns, makes
them a target of particularly fierce enmity.
Stones once shattered car windshields so often
that many settlers replaced the glass in their
vehicles with rock-resistant plastic. Before the
wall was built, stray bullets, fired from below,
sometimes burst into homes. In the settlement of
Efrat, a few hills over from Tekoa, one suicide
bomber detonated his bomb inside the medical
center. Another was shot to death as he was about
to blow himself up in the settlement’s
supermarket. He was killed not by a soldier but by a settler.

“Our children have been to more funerals than
most people have been to in their whole lives,”
says Sara Bedein, a mother of six who lives in
Efrat. “All my kids have friends, neighbors,
classmates who have been killed.” Bedein wears a
bright scarf on her head—Orthodox Jewish women,
like traditional Muslims, do not display their
hair in public. She says that, after one
school-bus bombing tore off the legs of three
young students and killed two teachers, her
daughter and schoolmates began sitting
cross-legged on the bus, believing it would
reduce the chance of losing limbs in an attack.
And yet, if you ask Bedein why her family doesn’t
move out of the occupied territory, she answers
immediately and unequivocally: “We love it here.”
She loves the views, the mountain air, the settlers’ tight sense of community.

Many settlers keep sidearms strapped to their
waists, sheriffs in their own Wild West. Some
even carry weapons to synagogue, and while
praying, while raising their arms, beseeching
God, it’s clear that any protection they seek is
not solely divine: There is the unmistakable
glint of a handgun snapped into a holster.

When Seth Mandell takes a short walk in the
wilderness, he carries his nine-millimeter Glock
in a fanny pack. Mandell lives in Tekoa, a couple
of streets away from Rabbi Froman. His hike has
become a ritual of grief. He works his way down a
steep, slippery trail, speckled with scarlet
wildflowers, bursts of color in the dun
desertscape. A few doves circle above. Doves in
the sky; olive branches beneath.

Mandell is heading toward a small grotto, a
tranquil spot where, he says, monks have come to
meditate since the fifth century. No surprise
that a 13-year-old boy was inspired to explore.
The boy was Koby Mandell, Seth’s son. He cut
school one day, in May 2001, with his 14-year-old
friend Yosef Ishran, also from Tekoa. They hung
out in this low-ceilinged cave. Perhaps they sat
in the cool shade and looked out the entrance: a
spectacular view of a rocky canyon, the walls
dropping sere and still into a dry riverbed below.

When night fell and the boys had not returned
home, searches were initiated. Soldiers arrived.
The next morning, Koby and Yosef were found in
the cave. They had been bludgeoned to death with
stones. The walls of the cave were smeared with
their blood. Next to the bodies lay their lunch
bags, with uneaten sandwiches and bottles of
water. The killers were never caught. The pain
Seth Mandell feels when he walks down here seems
to emanate from him like heat waves off a
sidewalk. But Mandell says that he and his
family—his wife and their three other
children—have no plans to leave. He says what
Rabbi Froman says. He says what many settlers
say. His connection to this land is spiritually,
emotionally, and culturally profound. “Leaving,”
he says, “would be leaving a part of myself behind.”

One thousand years before Christ was born,
Bethlehem was known as the City of David. It was
the birthplace of King David, a Jewish leader who
earned his esteem through a famous fight: He
defeated Goliath, striking him dead with a stone
flung from his sling. The giant, whose height,
according to the Old Testament, “was six cubits
and a span”—about ten feet (3 meters)—was a
member of the Philistine people, ancient enemy of
the Jews. From the word “Philistine” has derived
the current Palestinian, though the two are
linked only etymologically, not by blood.

Though rarely in power, the Jews were the most
populous group in the region for centuries. But
by the first century A.D., following a series of
ineffective rulers and defeats by the Roman army,
they were cast out of the Holy Land. For the next
2,000 years, the Jews scattered throughout the
world—the Diaspora—but they never stopped praying
for a return to their native soil.

In the meantime, Christianity rose to prominence.
It seems a fluke that Jesus was born in
Bethlehem—after all, he’s Jesus of Nazareth, a
town 90 miles (140 kilometers) to the north. Some
archaeologists and theological historians have
their doubts about many of the details of the
Christmas story, including that Jesus was born in
Bethlehem of Judaea. There is a small village,
also called Bethlehem, located closer to
Nazareth, where some believe Jesus was actually
born. (In Hebrew, the name Bethlehem means “house
of bread,” and could refer to almost any place with a flour mill.)

But according to the New Testament, in the Book
of Luke, the Roman emperor at the time, Caesar
Augustus, was conducting a census that required
all people to return to their hometowns to
register. Joseph was a descendant of King David,
and even though his wife was nearing the end of
her pregnancy, they completed the journey to
Bethlehem. Famously, the Book of Luke relates,
“there was no room for them in the Inn,” so Jesus
was born amid the livestock, perhaps in the
grotto over which the Church of the Nativity was eventually built.

Judaea’s ruler, King Herod, was so disturbed by
reports that a new king and potential rival had
been born that, according to the Book of Matthew,
he sent troops to kill all boys under age two.
Mary and Joseph escaped with Jesus to Egypt, but
thousands of children were reported to have been
slaughtered. By the fourth century, Christianity
was the official religion of the Roman Empire,
and Bethlehem swiftly became one of its holiest
sites. In 326, Helena, the mother of the first
Christian emperor, Constantine, traveled to
Bethlehem and shortly thereafter her son
commissioned the construction of the original
Church of the Nativity. (It was destroyed during
a riot 200 years later, but was promptly rebuilt.
The second version, finished in the mid-sixth century, still stands.)

Helena’s visit and a flow of imperial money
sparked an influx of pilgrims, and soon there
were dozens of monasteries in the nearby desert.
Then the Muslims arrived. Early in the seventh
century, a merchant named Muhammad, living in
Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, heard a voice
he believed to be that of the angel Gabriel tell
him, “Recite.” Muhammad com- mitted to memory the
words that followed, and these revelations became
the Koran, the Arabic word for “recitation. “
Within a century of Muhammad’s death in 632, the
religion he founded—Islam— had spread throughout the Middle East.

For centuries Bethlehem remained a Christian
island in a steadily expanding Muslim sea.
Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war brought
even more Muslims to the area, but Bethlehem
remained a majority Christian town. Then, in
1967, Israel’s victory once again altered the
city’s complexion. Jewish settlers began moving
into the occupied West Bank; Christians, who’d
started fleeing to safer lands during World War
II, accelerated their exodus; and Palestinian
militants initiated attacks on military and
civilian targets. In the same region where Jews
once battled Philistines, it was now Israelis
against Palestinians. In 3,000 years, the only
change, it appears, is a couple of syllables.

Before all semblance of normalcy was erased, the
Al-Amal restaurant, just off Manger Square, was
often filled with Jewish diners. They came for
the falafel, seasoned with tahini and parsley,
and the fresh shawarma sandwiches, the lamb meat
tucked into a hot pita. Jews also came to shop in
Bethlehem, known for producing the area’s finest vegetables.

But the Israeli occupation felt, to Palestinians,
like a series of humiliations— a proud people
reduced to dependency on their hated foe, at the
mercy of Israel’s military law, denied an
airport, and forced to pay taxes to the
occupation authority. In 1987, after two decades
of such treatment, an intifada, or uprising, was
launched (the word literally translates as
“shaking off”). Young Palestinians hurled stones
at Israeli tanks, a modern version of David and
Goliath, with the roles reversed.

The intifada pushed the two sides to the
bargaining table, and the Oslo Accords were
signed in 1993. But both Israelis and
Palestinians felt the provisions were not honored
by the other side. In 2000, a second Palestinian
uprising began, this one more brutal. Settlers
were repeatedly targeted; suicide bombers struck
with increasing frequency. Israeli forces shelled
Palestinian towns, and settlers attacked
Palestinian villagers and farmers. Two years
later, the Israelis began building the barrier.
Now, the only Jews who regularly enter Bethlehem
are soldiers, in armored vehicles, weapons at the ready.

The owner of Al-Amal restaurant is a 53-year-old
Muslim named Omar Shawrieh, a short man with a
trimmed beard and eyes weighed down by heavy
bags. The most prominent decoration in his
restaurant is a martyr’s poster: a curly-haired
young boy in a light-blue polo shirt. “He’s
wearing his school uniform,” says Shawrieh. It’s his son.

Last fall, the Israeli army entered Manger Square
on a mission to apprehend a wanted militant. The
soldiers traveled in a large convoy—a dozen
armored jeeps and a platoon of troops. It was
early afternoon. Mohammed Shawrieh, 13 years old,
stopped by his father’s restaurant to get money
for a haircut. The soldiers’ presence sparked the
usual commotion; several people began throwing
rocks at them, then the violence escalated and shots were fired.

Mohammed was curious, and he wandered across
Manger Square. As soon as he noticed him missing,
Omar panicked. “I ran to find my son,” he says.
“But they got to him before I got to him.”
Mohammed was shot in the side, a bullet piercing
his liver. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he had bled to death.

The Israel Defense Forces acknowledge the boy was
shot. “We were in the midst of a pinpoint
operation, to arrest a most-wanted terrorist,”
says Aviv Feigel, a lieutenant colonel with the
IDF. “It was very intense.” Molotov cocktails and
grenades, says Feigel, were launched at the
soldiers. A few were injured. So they fired back.
“Maybe that boy was just watching,” says Feigel.
“Or maybe he was participating. We didn’t
investigate. It’s a complicated situation; it’s
not a classic battlefield. With them, everyone is
in civilian clothes.” Mohammed Shawrieh was
buried the next day in a cemetery outside
Bethlehem, in the shadow of an almond tree. This
was followed by a demonstration and the wide
distribution of his martyr’s poster. Later, a
plaque was placed at the spot he was shot, near
the Church of the Nativity, just outside the
crypts where bones of the children killed by King
Herod, some 2,000 years ago, are believed to be
kept. The blame game is cyclical. Omar Shawrieh,
of course, faults the heavy-handed tactics of the
Israeli army; their quickness to shoot, their disregard for Palestinian lives.

The Israeli army says that if terrorists weren’t
trying to kill them, then soldiers would not have
entered Manger Square in the first place. Since
the start of the first intifada, more than 5,600
Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed.

Moderates do exist in the region, thousands of
Jews, Muslims, and Christians who wish to forge
bonds and work for peace. But the circumstances
in Bethlehem are so fraught that even the most
minor efforts—an Arab village attempting to sell
produce to an Israeli town; the local Palestinian
university trying to host a Jewish lecturer—are
stymied by the ugly realities. Interactions
between Palestinians and Israelis have mainly
been reduced to brief exchanges at fortified
checkpoints; often the Israeli soldiers are
sealed inside bulletproof booths, the glass so
thick the soldiers appear blurred.

No place harbors more frustration than the
refugee camps, where families who were uprooted
from their homes when Israel became a nation
still live—generation after generation stuck in a
stateless limbo. Ask where they’re from, and
they’ll tell you the name of a town that’s likely
been erased from Israel’s map, and speak in
elegiac tones of its crystalline waters and
verdant fields. Some display sets of rusty keys
that once unlocked houses their parents or
grandparents lived in before Israel existed.

“Everybody in camp hates the Jews,” says
28-year-old Adel Faraj, the owner of a tiny shop
in the Duheisha Camp, at the base of the
Bethlehem hills. More than 10,000 people live in
the camp’s half-square- mile block. The camp’s
alleys, tight as slot canyons, are a collage of
militant graffiti. Children run amid shattered
glass. Sewage trickles down open gutters. At
least two suicide bombers have come from Duheisha, one of them a young woman.

Faraj sells toiletries and lamps and compact
discs. He has a narrow face and curly hair, which
he likes to gel, and expressive eyes canopied
with dark brows. He keeps a water pipe, called a
narghile, in his shop and smokes apple-flavored
tobacco throughout the day. “If a Jew came
walking into this camp, he’d be killed. With a
rock. Or a knife. Or a gun. It doesn’t matter who
he was. A Jew is a Jew,” says Faraj.

“My friend was a suicide bomber,” he continues,
exhaling, filling his store with smoke. Faraj’s
friend was Mohammad Daraghmeh, 18 years old, who
blew himself up in March 2002 next to a synagogue
in Jerusalem, killing 11, including two infants
and a toddler in a stroller. As Faraj speaks, he
puts a CD in his boom- box. It’s Bob Marley. The
first track plays: “Is This Love?”

“I’m proud of him,” says Faraj of his suicide
bomber friend. “He did something great. The
Israelis have forced us into this situation. They
have left us with nothing. And when you have
nothing, you have nothing to lose.”

At two o’clock in the morning most weekdays,
several hundred men who do have something to
lose—wives, children—begin lining up on the
Bethlehem side of the wall. They’re seeking work
in Israel proper. They stand inside a long steel
cage, like a cattle chute, waiting to be searched
and prodded and fingerprinted and metal-detected.
Some are told to strip. The process can take more
than two hours. To be allowed through the
checkpoint, you must be married and have one or
more children. This, the Israeli army hopes, will ensure the laborers’ return.

Many of the men are construction workers—often in
the settlements. They wait in line for hours to
build houses for their enemies on land that used
to belong to them. They’re paid $35 a day. Then
they return home through the wall.

“Do you think we want to do this?” says one of
the men, 35-year-old Sufian Sabateen. He holds a
paper bag containing hummus and bread. He’s
smoking an L&M cigarette. His face, lit harshly
by the klieg lights of the wall, is stoic. It’s
an hour before dawn. Sabateen insists he’d gladly
work in Bethlehem for half the salary, but there
are no jobs. This is how he describes his week:
“From the mattress to work, from work to the mattress. My life is no life.”

The wall, Palestinians say, suffocates an entire
population for the actions of a small minority.
They believe it is an Israeli attempt to
establish a new national border, sealing onto the
Israeli side all the choicest cuts from the land
they occupied in 1967—the settlement areas, the
scarce water sources, the fertile fields. The
city of Bethlehem is being pinched into a
seven-square- mile box, surrounded by a barrier on three sides.

As the wall continues to grow, giant digging
machines, protected by armed guards, claw into
the earth day and night. When completed, it will
extend 450 miles (720 kilometers), sometimes
dipping as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) into
West Bank territory, claiming 10 percent of
Palestinian land for Israeli settlers. The
Israeli government says its goal is only to
protect Israeli lives, not to redraw the border,
and as soon as there’s a sweeping shift in
Palestinian policy toward Israel, the wall will
be destroyed and the confiscated land returned.
The Israeli government doesn’t even call it a
wall. It prefers the term “security fence,” and
in most places in the West Bank it is indeed a
network of electrified chain-link fences and
coils of barbed wire. But not in Bethlehem. The
wall around much of Bethlehem is taller than the
barriers used in Israeli prisons.

The Israeli government says the wall is working.
The second intifada brought wave after wave of
suicide bombings, striking throughout Israel,
killing scores of civilians and soldiers.
Starting in 2003, with construction of the wall
proceeding at top speed, and with intensified
military checkpoints, patrols, and intelligence,
the number of attacks drastically declined. “Our
life was hell,” says Ronnie Shaked, an Israeli
journalist. “Cafés were blowing up; buses were
blowing up. But no longer. The wall is very
important—it’ s protecting us. Thank God there is a wall.”

But Palestinian leaders argue the wall has little
to do with the reduction in suicide attacks. The
bombings have stopped, they say, because the
major militant groups, including Hamas,
proclaimed a ban on them, in the hope of
restarting peace talks. A concrete wall can’t
stop someone who’s willing to die, many
Palestinians say, and if militant groups wanted,
they could send a suicide bomber into Jerusalem every hour of the day.

The most powerful politician in Bethlehem sees it
another way. Salah Al-Tamari, the governor of the
Bethlehem district, views the wall as a
psychological ploy. “The Israelis want to provoke
us; they want us to lose our minds,” he says.
“They want us to leave.” The governor believes
that the Israelis have purposely created such
unlivable conditions in hopes that everyone will
flee. Then they can have the land to themselves.

“Well, they can’t have it,” says Al-Tamari. He
predicts the opposite will occur: The Israelis
will eventually lose. The governor claims that
simple demographics strongly favor the
Palestinians. Muslim Palestinians on average have
more children per family than Israeli Jews.
“Their nuclear weapon,” as one Israeli soldier
puts it, “is the womb.” By 2010 the number of
Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied
territories will be about equal. After that, the
Palestinians will have the majority.

“I will stay here, and my children will stay
here,” says Al-Tamari. “I’m a believer in the
future. The wall will fall and the occupation
will end—maybe in 10 years, maybe 50. We don’t
know when, but we do know one thing: We are
staying here, on our land. No matter what.”
Bethlehem may be where Christianity began, but
today its Christian residents are in a precarious
spot. Israelis see them as Palestinian. Muslims
see them as Christian. They see themselves,
alternately, as lifesaving buffers or
double-sided punching bags. Bernard Sabella, a
Christian sociologist and member of the
Palestinian Parliament, says the Christian
community may be all that’s keeping the whole
area from a blood-soaked implosion. The mere
presence of Christians seems to reduce the scale
of violence in the city: Israeli soldiers tread
with caution around Christian holy sites. The
last thing Israel needs is to incur the wrath of
the world’s Christians by damaging a revered church.

And yet Bethlehem’s Christians feel increasingly
like outsiders in their own city. Many dress in
current Western fashion—tight jeans, plunging
necklines, flashy jewelry. On Saturday nights,
teenagers head to Cosmos, one of the only discos
in the West Bank, where tequila shots are passed
around and there is (somewhat) dirty dancing.
Though some Muslims dress in modern styles, most
Islamic women in Bethlehem wear head scarves, and
others wear jilbobs, long, loose-fitting
coverings designed to hide all curves. Drinking
alcohol, for both sexes, is not acceptable in
public. Social mingling between Christians and
Muslims is infrequent, and interfaith marriages
are almost nonexistent. Still, Christians and
Muslims do work side by side at government
offices, hospitals, schools, and charitable organizations.

At the checkpoints, Christians are treated like
all other Bethlehem residents: with extreme
suspicion. Even the mayor, Victor
Batarseh—Bethlehem’ s mayor, by city ordinance,
must be Christian—is not allowed to remain on the
Israeli side of the wall past 7 p.m. “It’s
degrading,” says Batarseh. “If I’m invited to
cocktails in Jerusalem, I can’t go because I
don’t have permission.” He is 73 years old.

Bernard Sabella estimates that, because of the
conflict, more than 3,000 Christians have fled in
the past seven years. “It’s not sheer numbers,”
says Sabella, “it’s the type of people. Who is
emigrating? The educated, the rich, the
politically moderate, young families. Those who
are best able to change the situation are
leaving. Those who are unskilled, without
education, or politically radical can’t get visas.”

“We are unable to survive here,” says the
patriarch of a Christian family who asked that
their name not be mentioned. In Bethlehem, he
says, the local government is essentially a
puppet of the Israeli army—the police and the
courts have little authority, a situation that
affects all residents, including Muslims. The
real power in Bethlehem is controlled by extended
families, and the most powerful clans are Muslim.
Some in Bethlehem say privately they wish the
Israelis would simply take over the city.

“Christians are afraid that if we speak frankly
and Muslim families hear, we’ll be persecuted,”
says the patriarch. “We’ll be forced to pay a lot
of money. And physical things, of course, are
possible. Arson. Anything you can think of.” His
family lives in a hosh, a traditional group of
houses built around a courtyard. They’ve been in
Bethlehem so long they’re mentioned in the Old
Testament. They were here before Christ. “There’s
actually a Jewish branch of the family in
Jerusalem,” he says. “We separated about 2,000
years ago, when some of the family decided to follow Christ’s teachings.”

Now he’s thinking of leaving. He has a sister in
California and four brothers in Honduras. “Our
family,” he says, “will be entirely gone from the
Holy Land for the first time since Christ. And
I’ll sell my hosh to Muslims. They’ll consider it
a victory—another one off the Christians! How can
the Christian world accept this?”

Fifty years ago, there were just a handful of
mosques in the Bethlehem district. Now there are
close to a hundred. “My soul lives in Bethlehem,”
he says. “I’m like a fish—this is my water. Take
me out, and I wither and die. But I’m afraid of
the future. Can you imagine Bethlehem without any
Christians? You better start imagining it,
because in a few years, it might be reality.”

The Christians themselves are not immune to
infighting. Literally every square foot of the
Church of the Nativity is battled over by the
three sects that share use of the church: Greek
Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox.
The holy men of the three denominations bicker
over who gets to clean which sacred wall, who can
walk in which aisle. The guards in the church, it
sometimes seems, are not there to protect
tourists but to keep priests from attacking each
other. “Apart from Christ,” says Father Ibrahim
Faltas, a Franciscan friar who served in the
Church of the Nativity for 12 years, “there have
been few here who would turn the other cheek.”

They can’t even agree on Christmas in Bethlehem.
What date is the holy day celebrated at the
Church of the Nativity? The Greek Orthodox
priests, who have a slight majority interest in
the control of the church, rely for
ecclesiastical purposes on the Julian calendar,
which has a 13-day lag from the current Gregorian
calendar. So their Christmas Mass is on January
6. The Bethlehem Christmas Eve service televised
worldwide on December 24 actually takes place in
the much newer St. Catherine’s Church, run by the
Roman Catholics, adjacent to the Church of the
Nativity. And just to make things more complex,
the Armenians celebrate Christmas in their wing
of the church on January 18. So Christmas comes but thrice a year in Bethlehem.

But no matter your version of Christianity— or
even if you’re not religious at all—there seems
to be something significant to the cave beneath
the church floor, with its odor of incense and
candle wax, lit by a string of bare bulbs.
Visitors from all over the world descend the 14
steps into the earth. Many drop involuntarily to
their knees. They pray, sing, weep, and faint at
the Nativity spot. It happens all day, every day.

The air in that grotto, dank and musty, has the
smell of history. The conflicts played out in
Bethlehem are capable of transcending borders—the
future of millions of people, after all, is at
stake. A major breakdown could engulf much of the
globe. “It’s easy to think of Bethlehem as the
center of the world,” says Mayor Batarseh. “This
can’t be a place where calm never exists. If the
world is ever going to have peace, it has to start right here.”

Christian advice from an Atheist

Something worth contemplating, found in Christianity Today, an Evangelical magazine:

“[Many Christians] demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. … I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon?” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Cold Turkey,” In These Times

Lay vs. Monastic Life

A quote that especially touched me, having visited a monastery over the weekend:

“When Christ orders us to follow the narrow path, he addresses himself to all. The monastics and the lay persons must attain the same heights. Those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else. You are entirely mistaken if you think that there are some things required of ordinary people, and others of monks … they will have the same account to render.” – St. John Chrysostom

American "God"

“The American ‘God’ loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but he does not want you to have to struggle to realize it … It is the illusion of the crucifixion without nails, of salvation through self-realization, of worship as entertainment, not the faith of the Fathers believed in by all Orthodox Christians everywhere since the beginning.” – Frank Schaeffer, “Letter to Aristotle”

Inspiring Story of Renoir

In old age, Pierre Auguste Renoir, the great French painter, suffered from arthritis, which twisted and cramped his hands. Henri Matisse, his artist friend, watched sadly while Renoir, grasping a brush with only his fingertips, continued to paint, even though each movement caused stabbing pain.

One day, Matisse asked Renoir why he persisted in painting at the expense of such torture.

Renoir replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

As told in Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality by Anthony M. Coniaris