• OPINION \ Nov 02, 2001
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    Christian World Has Abandoned Bethlehem At Its Hour Of Need
Christian World Has Abandoned Bethlehem At Its Hour Of Need The Christians of the Western World have abandoned the birthplace of their religion, Bethlehem.

How else do you explain the silence in the face of Israeli's continued, brutal attacks against this religious and Biblical icon.

Israel enters Bethlehem and the two neighboring "Christian" communities of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala with tanks, helicopter gunships, armored cars, battalions of soldiers armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers and tear gas, and there is not a peep from the Christian World. There kill dozens of residents, destroy homes, take prisoners, undermine the city's business and social economy, and not one Christian Church leaders in the West feels compelled enough to do something about it.

There should be an outcry. The Christian leaders should be, though.

When I was with family in Bethlehem, recently, I met with some leaders of the Christian churches and the community. Like all good Christians, they spoke of religious faith, that "God" will save them from the constant bombardment of their city, homes and some religious shrines by the army of the Jewish State.

Yet, many Christians have fled, they acknowledge openly. It's no secret, although not many people want to talk about it.

Bethlehem is no longer really a "Christian" city based on population. The vast majority of residents are actually Muslim. Much of the free land around the city has been confiscated by the Israelis who plan expansive, expensive and exclusive Jewish settlements like nearby Gilo, formerly Arab land confiscated by the Israelis. The land that hasn't been confiscated is being eyed by Israel's land-grabbing administration.

Bethlehem is being torn apart by Israel, maybe a final act of revenge by the leaders of the Jewish State for a movement that is based on a Messiah who once was one of their own.

Yet Bethlehem still stands as the single most powerful image of Christianity, even as it crumbles under the powerful assault of Israel's military.

BETHLEHEM UNDER SIEGE The Israeli soldiers have blocked off the main street of Bethlehem in order to create a several square mile security buffer around Rachel's Tomb, a religious shrine Holy to Jews.

It's Holy to Christians and Muslims, too, but the Israelis don't seem to care. That is the nature of the double standard that is the foundation of the State of Israel.

As Palestinian Christians and Muslims approach, they are detained immediately by the soldiers. The soldiers are mostly teenagers with an attitude, immigrants who fled persecution in other Western countries where anti-Semitism flourishes. The soldiers seem to enjoy their power over this civilian population, and they take pleasure in hassling officials of the Palestinian National Authority. It's a reminder or warning to Palestinians that Israel, not they, control the destiny of Palestine.

Traditionally, the Christians were among the first to seek life outside of Bethlehem.

Not all, but many. For them, it was easier for them to leave.

It's not that easy for the Muslims whose population has increased ten-fold here during the 34 years of Israel's occupation, and where many are tied to refugees in the nearby camp.

The Christians have not only fled in a physical sense, but the Christianity of the West has also seemed to have fled in a psychological sense, too. American Christians seem oblivious to the destruction and carnage in Bethlehem taking place today, but are already buying icons and paintings of the manger city to hang up during the coming Christmas season.

There is a bizarre disconnect between the Bethlehem of today's reality, and the Bethlehem that Christians in the West pay homage to during the Christmas holidays.

It's one reason why Israel's army can bombard and devastate Bethlehem and the nearby cities with impunity during its frequent military incursions into the city.

If anything symbolized the birth of Christianity more, it is the image of Bethlehem and Manger Square. There, a Jewish family gave birth to a baby they named Jesus. Jesus became the savior of the world and, essentially, the power behind one of the fastest growing religions in the history of mankind until recent years.

Christians continue to turn to icons of Bethlehem during the Christmas season. They sing homilies and angelic hymns, recalling this Biblical event.

Yet few seem willing to speak out against this new crime.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS The causes of this Christian flight are numerous and complex. There are four specific causes that I can see. Christians are better off economically than most Muslims, making immigration to other countries easier.

Second, Israel's policies have pushed the Christians out. Israel's policies are intended to push the Palestinians out of the country. The Israeli Cabinet minister recently assassinated openly called the Palestinians "flees" and "rats" who he said should be evicted or "transferred" out to make room for Jewish immigrants. Israel declared his death as the provocation for their most recent of hundreds of assaults against Bethlehem in the past year.

Who wants to live in a war zone? That is exactly what Bethlehem has become under Israel's rule. Israel's attacks against Palestinians has targeted the Christians as well as the Muslim majority there.

A third factor is more complicated and shrouded in internal Arab strife and emotion.

The rise of religious fundamentalism that marries religion and politics has undermined the Christian presence in Palestine and throughout the Middle East.

Christians often quietly complain that they are patronized and ignored in the "Muslim" Middle East. They are marginalized and usually allowed to hold office only when certain government positions and even election positions as designated "Christian seats." Other issues are silenced. Not one leader has ever publicly spoken out against the Hamas practice of flying a Palestinian flag that features Islamic quotations on it. Nor have they silenced those few fanatics who declare openly that Palestine is a "Muslim," implying that Christians and others can live there with tolerance.

Yet, this is an internal Arab issue that can be addressed in a civilized manner, even if only eventually.

The fourth reason is that the Arab countries and the Arab organizations themselves refuse to play the "Christian" card, so to speak. They could appeal to Americans that Christian Holy sites are being damaged. Christian leaders are being killed. Bethlehem is under siege.

But they won't. The Arab countries are not Christian and Christian concerns do not top their foreign policy agendas.

CHRISTIAN WORLD AMBIVALENCE These answers do not address the bigger question of why Western Christians don't stand up and scream about Israel's policies in Bethlehem and other Christian enclaves that are barely hanging on to existence in Palestine? The fact is that Christians from the West look at Bethlehem like an old neighborhood where they once lived but now have fled.

Western Christians, especially in the United States, never return to a neighborhood they have left. Oh, they write books about the "good old days" in their old neighborhoods.

Sometimes, they will even travel to the old neighborhood to reminisce with their families and friends about the old and long gone glory days.

This attitude had created a bizarre situation where Christians pray to pictures of Bethlehem for peace during the Christmas season, but seem to rummage past news of the modern-day city's demise.

The Israelis have recognized this ambivalence. They see that the world's Christians are not concerned when their tanks rumble into the very square where Jesus was born.

They see Christian Evangelists mired in their own selfish agendas, exploiting the Biblical prophecies of Israel's rise, silent to the travesties. These Evangelists (the Christian version of Islamic fundamentalism) support Israel's barbaric policies, even though among the "heathen Arab victims" are Christians, too.

One day, Bethlehem could be little more than a religious museum, or maybe even eventually just another illegal Jewish settlement.

And just as they distort the facts in Jerusalem, Israeli tourism guides will one-day tell their hapless visitors (a large majority of tourists to Jerusalem and Bethlehem are Christian), that Bethlehem was destroyed by the Arab World.

They'll probably get away with that, too.