BETHLEHEM (ANS) -- Lack of tourism and rising unemployment are two new links in the chain of crises that has made life hard labor for Palestinian Christians living in the Occupied Territories. Long accustomed to bearing persecution from fanatical Muslims, their heaviest burden is that many American Christians seem to have forgotten their Palestinian brothers and sisters in their sufferings. (Pictured: left to right; Mrs. Salwan Salman, Tarneem, Elias, and Rev. Nihad Salman siling from the living room that was their home and safe haven during the siege of the Church of Nativity. Not shown is Roseen Salman).
The city of Bethlehem, located in the Palestinian territories about 8 miles from Jerusalem, expected the New Millennium to be a banner year for tourism ? until the Intifada began in September 2000. Once suicide bombings started, tourists simply stayed home, afraid to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories. This situation and the closed borders with Israel contribute to record unemployment.
For that reason and others, nearly 300 different families every week turn hopeful eyes toward Shepherds Society of Bethlehem looking for relief.
Said Reverend Nihad Salman, director of Shepherds Society and a Bethlehem native: ?People are going hungry here. I never thought it would come to this in Bethlehem. I was shocked to find families were in these bad conditions.?
It is not that Palestinian Christian families are unwilling to work. They?re more than willing, Reverend Salman reminds, ?but Bethlehem is a big prison now. Since 1996, the border is closed between the territories and Israel, and special permission is needed to go in and out.? Even so, security at checkpoint crossings makes the process long and laborious.
Aid and relief does come to Palestinian refugees from a variety of sources, including the United States. Unfortunately for Palestinian Christians, the money is funneled through and distributed by various Muslim charities. For families to qualify for assistance, they must be Muslim or be willing to convert.
?It puts hungry families in a difficult position. The Muslim (relief) societies say, ?You want to be with us (convert to Islam), we will help you. Be a Christian and you can starve,?? said Reverend Salman. As a result, there are some Christian families who have converted to Islam. Many others Christian families have fled the region.
?We want to keep the Light shining here,? emphasized Reverend Salman, ?but we need other Christians to send oil.?
Shepherds Society aids needy families with five specific programs: food coupons, medical attention, school tuition, utilities, and employment. If a family applies for food, after a thorough investigation ascertains need, Shepherds Society gives them a coupon worth about $65 (as converted to US funds).
Ever on their guard against exploitation, Shepherds Society makes a conscious effort to weed out ?rice Christians.? ?Some people come to church just to try to get something for free,? said Reverend Salman. ?Many Muslims feel it is a virtue to steal something from a Christian. Some Muslims listen to Christian radio stations, learn the phrases, and ?get saved? so Christian organizations will give them money. However, we live here and we know these people. If they say they have become Christian, we wait a few months to give them aid so we know that their conversion is legitimate and real.?
Reverend Salman cited a Florida-based magazine that ran a story with photos of Muslims who became Christians from listening to the ministry?s radio program.
?We knew every one of those people. They are con men who go from society to society to get money. We knew they would say anything to get something from a Christian organization. Some of them are quite good at saying what makes them sound like Christians.?
Because medical attention requires prepayment, Shepherds Society will help with that, too. Oftentimes, Reverend Salman must contact Christians in Israel to purchase and bring medicines to a secret border crossing because the medication is not available in the territories.
Shepherds Society also helps with tuition payments to private schools. Typically strong supporters of education, Palestinian Christian families are hesitant to send their children to overcrowded public schools that often have 200 pupils or more per classroom. Also, public schools in the territories often have a political agenda. One Palestinian Christian father related that he withdrew his son from public grade school when the child reported that the day?s lessons included instruction on how to make a bomb out of a potato. As per need, Shepherds Society will help families pay on their electric or water bill, buying them time until they can pay it off.
Shepherds Society also keeps a list of people needing work and non-governmental institutions needing laborers but which cannot afford them. Shepherds Society will pay a laborer to work for a limited time.
With limited resources, a sense of responsibility toward their contributors, and the knowledge that they could be exploited, Shepherds Society carefully investigates individuals seeking assistance.
?We check carefully for real needs. As such, 80 percent of our money goes to Christians,? said Reverend Salman. ?Muslims have many (charitable) societies. Christians have very, very few.?
From contributions, Shepherds Society may take out 7 percent for overhead ?if we need it,? said Reverend Salman, ?but not necessarily. Most of our workers are volunteers.? Reverend Salman himself is a volunteer who does not take a salary, yet often risks his life for this ministry. Bethlehem Bible College donates workspace for the charity.
Some contributors of Shepherds Society are European governments that contribute to Palestinian charities. Because of this, Shepherds Society does not strictly help only Christians, but administrates the funds according to the terms of the grant. Contrasting with Muslim charities that only give to other Muslims, Reverend Salman said that money given by the Shepherds Society to needy Muslims gives Christians a chance to say ?Jesus loves you? and builds bridges to the Gospel. Monies contributed to Shepherds Society from Christians or churches goes exclusively to help Palestinian Christians.
Conversely, Reverend Salman warns American Christians to also be on guard against deception, especially concerning news coverage out of the Middle East. In particular, he cited the September 11th 16-second news clip showing Palestinians celebrating the deaths in New York and Washington. But like a lot of media, that particular clip had been staged.
?The men (in the clip) were eating in a bakery,? said Reverend Salman. ?A reporter asked them to go out in the street and act like they were celebrating. He said he would buy them pastries if they did. I doubt if they knew what they were supposed to be celebrating.?
Because of that, many American Christians angrily withdrew their support from Palestinian Christian organizations and caused a further sense of loneliness and isolation to brothers and sisters already under attack. Yet, despite the abandonment and downright hostility of some American Christians, the Shepherds Society and the Palestinian Church remains resolute.
?The devil?s eyes are on us every minute seeking to destroy Christ,? said Reverend Salman. ?We live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death with the Lord as our Shepherd. We will not be afraid.?
For more information concerning Shepherds Society, Bethlehem Bible College, and related ministries, please write:
Hope Evangelistic Outreach
P.O. Box 457
Chatsworth, GA 30705
Or email email@example.com
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