Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has restored its sparkling mosaics and marble columns to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.
“It has become such a beautiful church,” Ziad al-Bandak, head of the local project committee of Christian leaders, told the AP. “Every Christian in the world would love to see it now.”
Palestinian Mayor Anton Salman expects 1.2 million tourists will make their way to Christ’s birthplace this year. Among them, following an Israeli reversal, will be those who most long to visit for Christmas—the Christians of the Gaza Strip.
“In Gaza, they talk about the West Bank as if it is heaven,” said Hanna Maher, Egyptian pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. “People love to go for Christmas; there are so many churches.”
In Gaza, there are three. According to the 2017 census, 47,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories (1% of the population), but only about 1,000 live in Gaza.
Last week the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) reported that nearly all who applied to enter Israel to visit the West Bank for Christmas failed to receive permits, except for those older than 55.
Applicants younger than 16 were also approved, consistent with restrictions instituted last Christmas and maintained through Easter. A previous policy limited travel to those between ages 16 and 35.
The MEC report was confirmed by Maher, who stated that initially just 200 travel permits had been granted, and Christians, sharing stories of the delayed permit applications, began to assume those outside the age limit would not be allowed to travel.
But their prayers were answered this week…
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Gathered to promote their narrative to international evangelicals largely supportive of Israel, a bespectacled, long-bearded, Yarmulke-wearing Jewish settler appeared on screen.
He spoke, and their surprise deepened.
‘I am a passionate defender of Palestinian rights,’ Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger told the audience. ‘Zionism is a big tent, and there are many I disagree with.’
A New York City native, Schlesinger immigrated to Israel in 1977. He lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, between Bethlehem and Hebron.
Many Palestinians consider Jewish settlers to be the source of all evil, he admitted. Not until two years ago had he spoken to a Palestinian as an equal.
Serving in the army, he had arrested them. For general housework, he had employed them. But after a US-based pastor encouraged him to listen to them, he had worked to be reconciled ever since.
In this capacity Schlesinger was invited to the fourth biennial Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference, held 7-10 March in Bethlehem. Operating at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, these conferences provoke much controversy.
This year, they chose to provoke themselves.
Fifty UK citizens joined roughly five hundred people from 24 countries to attend the conference, including 150 Palestinian Christians from Israel and the West Bank.
Interviewed on screen, Schlesinger also expressed great appreciation for those the conference aimed to challenge: Christian Zionists who prioritize Jewish Israel.
‘The Christian nation is turning over a new leaf, it is a miracle,’ he said. ‘Christian Zionism defends Israel against its many enemies, so we need all the friends we can get.’
Afterwards he mingled in the crowd. Some even approached to shake his hand.
‘It was hard for many here to see Rabbi Hanan in our audience, let alone on the screen,’ said Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, and a conference organiser.
‘But some came to me and said, you are challenging us in our faith.’
Like many Palestinians, Awad, who has conducted nonviolent trainings for Hamas, had found it difficult to befriend those with whom he had deep political disagreements.
Additional screened interviews with his friends in Hamas also challenged the conference towards a similar transformation.
Awad told Lapido that Jews have a basic need to live and worship in the land of their ancestors.
The fear that kept Jews, Muslim, and Christians apart, he said, came less from ‘the other’ than from those one considers on one’s own side.
‘People are not afraid of Rabbi Hanan, they know he will not come here and hurt us,’ he said. ‘But we are afraid of being labeled a traitor by our own community.’
Awad and Schlesinger jointly host a study to discuss their holy texts. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all suffer generational trauma, Awad says. So the Holy Land Trust sponsors ‘healing hatred’ groups to help them overcome it together.
Likewise, Schlesinger has co-founded ‘Roots’, a Palestinian-Israeli initiative for understanding, non-violence, and transformation.
Of three thousand local Israelis and Palestinians attending his training, around two-thirds have been Jews. Of these up to forty percent have been settlers, and up to 15 percent have been soldiers sent by the army.
Ninety-nine percent of all participants, he said, are meeting ‘the other’ for the first time.
‘Something is wrong,’ Rabbi Schlesinger told Lapido Media. ‘We are living out our truth in a way that causes injustice to other people.
‘I don’t know if the land is occupied, but the people are occupied.’
This theme was echoed by another prominent Jewish critic of Israeli policy invited to CATC, Arik Ascherman, president and senior rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights. His remarks were introduced by a video from October 2015 showing him resisting a knife-wielding Jewish settler.
‘The creation of the state of Israel—and we know it is a catastrophe for Palestinians—was the beginning of our redemption, and we want it to be a blessing shared by all,’ he said.
‘But it may be that in God’s eyes, the very things we do to hold on to the entire land make us unworthy to keep all of it.’
CATC has been subject to much criticism, some of it theological, some of it political.
‘Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians enjoy religious liberty,’ Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told Lapido. Last year they raised over £872 million to support Israel.
‘Even as I decry the anti-Israel rhetoric that has taken place [at CATC], I give thanks for the many, many Christians who truly know Israel and continue to support the land and her people in prayer.’
But for Awad, though resistance to the occupation is crucial, so is the befriending of an enemy.
‘I cannot be a voice to the other side in nearly the same way one of their own can,’ he said.
‘We are communal beings who only trust our own kind, so we need to make our own communities uncomfortable.’