Bethlehem faces darkest hour, mayor says

This week CathNews presents the top stories from 2006. This story was originally published on 13 December 2006.

"This year, the birthplace of Jesus, though its history is full of inspirational stories, is living one of its history's darkest chapters," Victor Batarseh told reporters during his annual Christmas address, the Middle East Online reports.

Israel's separation barrier (dubbed the 'Apartheid Wall' by its critics) has taken a particular toll on this city of some 40,000, cutting off access to farm land and isolating labourers from jobs in Jerusalem just minutes to the north, the paper says.

"Today we live in what is similar to a big prison," said Batarseh, a 71-year-old former activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"Usually around Christmastime Bethlehem used to be packed with tourists and pilgrims," the mayor said. "Now, as you can see, the little town seems to be so quiet under the shadow of this wall."

The wall has devastated Palestinian farmers as well, the mayor said, adding that 7,000 dunums (about 280 hectares) of arable land were confiscated to make way for the barrier's cement blocks and guard towers.

"Many Palestinian farmers are denied access to reach their lands to collect their harvest," Batarseh said. "Many others have no access to markets to sell their produce."

The dwindling tourist numbers, Israeli closures and the severe limits on Palestinian work permits have sent unemployment in Bethlehem soaring to 65 percent, Batarseh said.

The Hamas-led government promised the town 50,000 dollars for Christmas decorations, but the money has yet to arrive. Still, Batarseh, said to be a Hamas ally despite his Christian faith, refused to criticise the ruling Islamists.

However, the mayor retains his hope.

"Yet we keep holding deep faith in peace," he said. "We pray that the star of the nativity will shine on Bethlehem once again."

Hope for the hopeless

Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone appears to be singing from the same hymnbook with the release of his Christmas message, "Providing hope when all seems hopeless".

"Not only does Christmas offer us hope in the midst of darkness, but it challenges us to be that hope for others," Bishop Malone says in his message.

Quoting Australian Jesuit superior, Fr Mark Raper, Bishop describes hope as "a virtue grounded in suffering. It is a grace that gives strength."

"The challenge for us as we support others in need", Bishop Malone says, "is to search for and find the seeds of hope, to allow them to grow, to fan the feeble spark into a flame."

Bishop Malone's statement also highlights the problem of depression that often strikes over the Christmas holiday period.

"According to Beyond Blue, the national depression initiative, one in five Australians will experience depression at some point in their lifetime. Each year around one million adults and 100,000 young people live with depression."

"These are very disturbing statistics", Bishop Malone says, "especially when we're described as a developed and prosperous nation, a land of opportunity. Despite the many breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology, and the endless opportunities available to us in this 21st century, why is it that so many lives are burdened by the scourge of depression?"

"At Christmas we are reminded that this divine love is with us always. We celebrate the birth of Jesus in a stable over 2,000 years ago, and are reminded yet again of God's loving presence among us. Jesus, God made flesh, gives us reason to live in hope.

"During this joyous season may we know the hope and joy of God-with-us, and may each of us take up the challenge that Christmas presents," Bishop Malone concludes.

Even Santa won't be able to climb that wall (Middle East Online, 12/12/06)
Providing hope when all seems hopeless (Christmas message from Bishop Michael Malone, 12/12/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Bethlehem City website
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

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)

5 Jan 2007