Americans clueless about Bethlehem

Most Americans believe that Bethlehem is a town in Israel inhabited by Jews and Muslims - only a fraction realise that it is a mixed Christian-Muslim Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, a survey shows.

Independent Catholic News reports that the nationwide survey, carried out by top US political pollsters Zogby International, canvassed 15,000 American respondents.

The poll was commissioned by the campaign organisation Open Bethlehem to coincide with a survey carried out in Bethlehem itself canvassing 1,000 respondents from the three urban centres of Bethlehem, where the population splits almost equally between Muslims and Christians.

The surveys have put the spotlight on the plight of the town, which has been fast losing its indigenous Christian population since the construction of the Israeli wall plunged Bethlehem into economic crisis.

The two surveys show that American perceptions of the town are wildly at odds with the perceptions of those who live there.

While the Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9%) to blame it on Islamic politics and are reluctant (7.4%) to blame Israel.

And while four out of ten Americans believe that the wall exists for Israel's security, more than nine out of ten Bethlehemites believe it is part of a plan by Israel to confiscate Palestinian land.

The Zogby survey shows strong support for the town in the US, where 65.5% of the population want the UN to list it as a world heritage site. Americans are also strongly in favour (80.6%) of Bethlehem retaining a strong Christian presence.

Americans are also ambivalent about the Israeli wall, with 31.5% in favour of it, with another 31.6% opposed.

But more than two-thirds of Americans believe Bethlehem is unsafe to visit, while 80% of Bethlehemites consider their town safe for visitors.

While the US survey showed that Americans are sceptical about Muslims and Christians living contentedly alongside each other - only 17% thought they lived together in peaceful coexistence - the Palestinian survey showed they do: around 90% of Christians said they had Muslim friends, and vice-versa.

The Israeli government could well be shaken by the discovery that Americans' tolerance of the wall would be strained by the discovery that it separates communities and families, cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem, and requires the seizure of privately-owned land.

US Christians, meanwhile, are likely to be shocked by the discovery that seven out of ten Christians in Bethlehem believe Israel treats the town's Christian heritage with brutality or indifference.

The Bethlehem poll shows on the other hand that more than two-thirds (73.3%) of Bethlehem's Christians believe that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage with respect.

"Our US poll shows overwhelming support for Bethlehem's Christian heritage, yet our survey of Bethlehem's own citizens shows the city cannot retain this heritage and its Christian community while the wall remains," Leila Sansour, Open Bethlehem's Chief Executive said.

"The choice is stark. Either the wall stays and Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town," she said. "Or Bethlehem retains its Christian population in which case the wall has to come down."

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reports that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem said on Wednesday that the West Bank city of Bethlehem has become "a city of conflict and death" as a result of continuing political instability and violence in the region and Israeli counterterrorism measures.

"Bethlehem is meant to be a city of peace. Unfortunately it is now just the contrary, a city of conflict and death," Patriarch Michel Sabbah said in his annual Christmas message.

Cardinal Sabbah cited Israel's security barrier around the Biblical city, meant to thwart bombers from entering Israeli cities, as the chief cause of all evils, calling it an economic stranglehold which has severely restricted the Palestinians' freedom of movement in and out of the town.

"This year again, Christmas is coming to Bethlehem, along with the same circumstances of death and frustration with the wall and the checkpoints - on the ground and in the heart," he said during a press conference at the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem.

"The occupation and deprivation of freedom on one side, and fear and insecurity on the other continue as before," he added.

Americans back Bethlehem - but are not sure where it is (Independent Catholic News, 20/12/06)
Bethlehem is city of conflict, death (Jerusalem Post, 20/12/06)
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' - Barrier Wall choking Palestinian community in birthplace of Christ (Catholic Online, 20/12/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Open Bethlehem
Bethlehem City website

Bethlehem faces darkest hour, mayor says in Christmas message (CathNews, 13/12/06)
Charity steps in to save Bethlehem traders (CathNews, 25/1/06)
not so big "welcome" to Bethlehem, Jericho and Emmaus pilgrims (CathNews, 23/1/04)
Nuns say Bethlehem is dying, due to apathy of Christian world (CathNews, 19/12/02)

21 Dec 2006