• December 18, 2003
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    Baptist Pastor to Sharon: "Lift the Closure of Bethlehem"
Baptist Pastor to Sharon: The following is the full letter sent to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon:


Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

I appeal to you to use your influence to lift the closure of Bethlehem. It is apparent that the noose that the IDF has created around the city is getting tighter every week. This siege-like closure of the city is suffocating the Christian community of the city rather than choking the militants and is generating untold hardships to every Christian church and organization that serves in the Bethlehem area. Over 60% of the Christians in the West Bank live in the Bethlehem area. Consequently, the majority of Palestinian Christians is harmed in one way or another as a result of the barriers, walls, razor-wire fences, army camps and checkpoints that completely circle the city.

I am the Dean of Students of a Christian college in Bethlehem and I am the pastor of a Church in Jerusalem. My clerical duties in both cities dictate that I travel daily between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I can never be sure on any given day whether the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint are going to let me go through the checkpoint or not. On Wednesday, November 18, 2003, as I drove to the check point to wait my turn, I noticed that the clergyman in the car ahead of me was refused entry to Bethlehem in spite of his large shiny cross and white beard. When my turn came the soldiers told me that the checkpoint was closed and that if I entered Bethlehem I would not be allowed to leave the city for five days. When I explained to the soldier that I am a pastor and that I have important ministries in Bethlehem, he responded with: ?I am sure that the nuns that we turned back a few minutes ago had important ministries too?. I do not understand Mr. Prime Minister, how nuns and priests crossing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem would pose a threat to the security of the state of Israel. With the current policies of your government, over 95% of the Christian citizens of Bethlehem are not allowed to cross the checkpoint from Bethlehem to Jerusalem which, as you well know, is only six miles away. As for those who have permits or are privileged to pass through, it may take them ten minutes to two hours to cross. This overpowering closure is causing great social, economic, educational, medical and religious nightmares to the Christian citizens of Bethlehem, and it continues to cause no less harm to the majority Muslim population of the city.

During the month of July 2003, a Christian organization in Holland granted scholarships to a group of Palestinian Christian clergymen from Jerusalem and from Bethlehem to travel to Turkey for a few days of relaxation and spiritual enrichment. On the final day to fly from Tel-Aviv to Turkey, we discovered that the Palestinian pastors from the Bethlehem area were denied permits to travel from Bethlehem to the Ben Gurion Airport. All of our efforts and petitions to persuade the Israeli authorities in Kfar Etzion and Bet El to issue the needed permits proved futile. Finally, we sent a message to the head of the sponsoring organization in Holland to inform him of the lack of progress. He in turn made contacts with a high official in the Israeli government, who after a few phone calls persuaded the authorities in Bet El to issue the pastors the needed permits. I wonder Mr. Prime Minister, what is the point of having so much red tape and enormous obstructions standing in the way of a group of Christian clergymen needing to travel via the Ben Gurion Airport?

Another challenge that faces the Christians in the Bethlehem area, Mr. Prime Minister, is traveling to holy sites in Israel. Last month (November 2003), a colleague who is the pastor of a congregation in Bethlehem, submitted an application to the Israeli authorities in Kfar Etzion to get permits for him and his congregation to travel from Bethlehem to Tiberius to conduct a service at a Christian site near the Sea of Galilee. Without giving the pastor any explanation, the authorities denied him the needed permits. The disheartened pastor told me that this was the third time his applications were rejected.

The Christian community in Bethlehem, Mr. Prime Minister, does not seek preferential treatment from the Israeli Authorities. But we urge you to remove the razor-wire fences, demolish the walls and loosen the noose at the checkpoints so that Christians and non-Christians can be free to go on with normal lives. IDF observation towers which are erected at strategic positions around Greater Bethlehem are giving the 130 thousand inhabitants the feeling that they are inmates condemned to living in a tightly controlled jail.

As Christmas approaches, Mr. Prime Minister, and the eyes and hearts of hundreds of millions of Christians from around the globe turn to the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for inspiration, let them see that those who have the power to rule the people today, are kinder, gentler and fairer than those who ruled when Christ, the Prince of Peace was born.

Sincerely,

Reverend Alex Awad

Dean of Students, Bethlehem Bible College

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