Christmas Under Occupation

Several hours were left before the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas would arrive to celebrate Christmas with the people of Bethlehem. The anticipation was so high that a number of locals was already waiting at the border. In the meantime many Palestinians took advantage of the international media presence to draw attention to their grievances. Children, women and men are standing on the streets and hold signs inscribed with messages in various languages to condemn the most recent decisions that had been made by the UNRWA. It was not the best timing to release 114 employees. The Palestinian families, who had yet again to lose the most, welcomed the foreigners while making their voices heard, before the visitors would find their way to one of the holiest places of Christianity.

The Church of the Nativity is located 3 kilometers away from the border. It is one of the last remaining churches of early Christian times. Its name originates from the belief that Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ in the cave that was situated here previously. In the 4th century, Constantin I., whose name would eventually denotate today's Istanbul for over 1000 years, decided to build a church on that place in dedication to the holy event. In the main hall of the church you find a mosaic of Constantin, which was rediscovered only in the last century.


The exact location, where Jesus was supposedly born, is marked with a star, above which an altar is standing. The original meaning of the star, whose 14 may stand for the 14 generations of Jesus Christ, is usually attributed to a comet or a super nova which appeared during that fateful night. It is also a major example for symbols, who over time acquire important historical meanings, as its removal by Orthodox adversaries in the second half of the 19th century would intensify the tensions between France and the Russian Empire. The re-establishment of this star by the Osmanic Sultan Abdülcemid I., who was an ally of France, is said to have triggered the outbreak of the Crimean War, as the Russian Tsar Nicholaus I. consequently claimed the sole control over the region by establishing a protectorate for all Christians, a claim that neither France, who represented the interests of the Catholic church, nor the Osmanic empire would accept. The Allied Powers came out victorious, ensuring their influence in that region, which is why the star has remained on its place to this day.


Standing on the opposite side of the Church of the Nativity is the Omar Mosque, which was named after one of the first Islamic Caliphs (Rashidun). In 637, Omar travelled to Bethlehem to pass a law, which would guarantee the safety and respect of Christians and their holy shrines. It's been said that four years after the death of Prophet Mohammad, Omar prayed on the place where, later in the 19th century and with financial support of the Greek Orthodox church, the mosque was built. Today, at the time for the sunset prayer 'Maghrib', we would meet a fellow traveller in front of this mosque. In the meantime we gained some impressions of the festivities.


In the middle of the Manger Square, which separates the Omar Mosque from the Church of the Nativity, a big christmas tree has been placed. Children and young women are marching in a parade. As I look up, I spot a big UNRWA poster that is hanging on a wall. It depicts a small girl conveying the message of solidarity with Gaza and Syria, and encouraging to donate for the right cause. Unfortunately, this would not change the tragic fate of those two places in the years that followed. As I look further up, I spot armed men on the roofs. The Israeli soldiers are positioned on all buildings that surround us, a picture that temporarily distracted from the outstanding harmony between the Christians and Muslims who live here in Bethlehem. The peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem is not surprising, considering the fact that they have been living here side by side for many centuries. This harmony was particularly reflected during sunset, as the Christian choral singing on stage and the Adhan that was playing through the loudspeakers of the Omar Mosque unintentionally created a "remix of Islam and Christianity". The Adhan was the signal for us to head to the mosque and meet our friend, with whom we exchanged our impressions and thoughts until the sky was so dark that we could no longer see the soldiers on the roofs.

So Close and yet so Far

Before heading back, we made sure to visit one more place. Situated close to Bethlehem is Aida, one of the most famous refugee camps in the West Bank. A large key made of steel has been placed on top of its entrance. This key is supposed to be the largest key in the world. The creation of this object was inspired by the story of the Palestinians who kept their keys after being forced out of their homes, hoping that one day they would return. Temporarily, and within the scope of an initiative to draw attention to the situation in Palestine, the "key of return" was placed in Berlin, where twenty years earlier its people fought for the fall of the Berlin wall, just like today the Palestinian people are fighting for the removal of the 'Apartheid Wall'.


A memorable Christmas was finding its end. A helpful local from Bethlehem made sure that we felt comfortable at any time. Now it was getting late. "Where are you going next?", our friend asked. "We're going back to Jerusalem", our fellow traveller whom we met at the mosque let him know. With a smile he bid farewell. His eyes signalized happiness for us, but also sadness. It's just not fair that people from all corners of the world have the chance to see his home, but he himself cannot.