Today we went to one of the most iconic, most recognizable, most talked about places in the entire history of the world: Bethlehem—the birthplace of our Savior Jesus Christ. We sing about it. We reread the happy story of His birth.
But have you wondered: What is the state of Bethlehem today? I hadn't. Until today. To be sure, I have heard a few details about it since being here, but I just didn't think about it much until I went there myself...
Bethlehem is actually very close to Jerusalem, but it takes a little longer than you would think because of traffic and because Bethlehem is in the West Bank... so you have to cross the border which is Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. The occupation really isn't a good situation... for disputable but not totally unjustifiable security reasons, a very large portion of the West Bank is literally enclosed by a high, barbed wire-topped wall. It's very Berlin Wall-esque. When we passed through it, it almost felt like we were losing our freedom, even though we were only visiting. Some Palestinians who live there literally can't leave at all unless they have a really good reason, and when they do have to leave, it's a huge pain for them (the exit checkpoints are almost akin to airport security... so many people, so many needed official papers). Even when they travel within this area from city to city, they still have to go through small checkpoints. They say that the Palestinians really resent having to live under such conditions.
The first part of our Bethlehem experience was visiting Bethlehem University, which is a Christian-operated university where both Christian and Muslim Arabs attend (the ratio is about 1/3 Christian, 2/3 Muslim). We were given a tour of the University which included a Q&A with 5 of their students. We talked about a lot of things...It was really interesting to hear their opinions, since we usually hear from older, more politically-active scholars or professors, but these were more like our peers. The things they said weren't that extreme, but the underlying message that I got was that they didn't like the American government or anything that supported Israel's existence. The sad thing was was that it truly dominated their lives—they think about it a lot... to the point of dwelling on it. At their library, they showed us a hole in the wall from a missile during an Israeli attack... they made a big deal out of it, even though it was almost 30 years ago. I asked our guide about one of the pictures they had up in the library... and he really didn't answer it... instead, he talked to me about how the American political system was completely controlled by the Jews (actually, a paraphrase of what he said was 'every politician that has risen to power is because he was pro-zionist, and every politician that doesn't get into office is because they don't support the Zionist agenda). After we walked around the campus a little, we went for lunch. It was the most amazing thing ever. We went to this restaurant that was like a huge tent, with a low roof all the way across. We sat in groups of 8 at tables, and ate all traditional Arab foods. The first course was these DELICIOUS whole wheat pitas, and like 10 small plates of stuff you could dip them in. My favorites were the hummus and green sauce. For dessert they had baklava that was so good. When we went into the city proper, We had a tour guide, our Palestinian teacher's wife, who took us through the city and showed us some of the historical stuff. We walked through the streets and saw some of the different churches from the outside, but we went into the Church of the Nativity, which was built by Constantine over the place where they believed Jesus was born. There was one spot that was the birthplace and one that was the manger. It was a really cool place to see. There was a chapel connected to it that had a grotto underneath where Jerome translated the bible into Latin. This one wasn't decorated like the Nativity one, so you could see what the stable really might have looked like back then. We went down and sang some Christmas hymns, and there was a really special spirit there, despite the backdrop of political unrest.