Please find below some reflections and actions, which we have put together, in response to a demand from church leaders for something to use in Christmas services. As it is being sent out for use in a meditation slot, we assumed that it, will be used in a context of prayer. But if you wish to use it for yourself, then as always we suggest that as well as acting through letter writing, you could support all those suffering in Israel and Palestine and those working to help them through informed prayer also.
With best wishes
The following is a composite of information and messages received from friends in Bethlehem, together with a suggested action for congregations and individuals. We invite you to use the messages as a meditation and then to encourage people to act.
Many people will be singing the carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' at carol services across the world. Others will listen to services on the radio and will hear the familiar words referring to the 'O deep and dreamless sleep' of Bethlehem's inhabitants, watched over in wondering love by the angels as the birth of the Christ child takes place.
The reality of Bethlehem today is more like the period after Christ's birth, when Herod ordered the massacre of the children.
Bishara Awad, the President of Bethlehem Bible College writes:
'As all of you turn your attention to Bethlehem these days, please remember "Our Little Town" in your prayers. Bethlehem now is very sad. All it's people are struggling under very strict curfew since the 22nd of November. It may be hard to imagine being under curfew. It is very cruel, because no one is allowed to leave his or her home for any reason. All shops and schools are closed, as well as pharmacies and work places. There is no possibility for Christmas shopping, there are no decorations, and one cannot go to church. Being a closed military area, we are even denied the usual flood of Christian pilgrims.
I pray that you will sing this beautiful song and that its meaning will bless your Christmas, but before you do please think of the suffering Church in Bethlehem and say a prayer that the curfew will be lifted and the siege on Bethlehem will end. You may want to also write to your nearest Israeli representative and your own government officials about these cruel acts done against the people of Bethlehem by the Israeli army.
May Immanuel Bless You This Christmas.'
Beit Sahour resident (the village of the shepherds' fields) and Tour Guide, Wisam Salsaa, sent us the following meditation by Father Rob Waller.
'Plenty of Room in the Inn
In a couple of weeks we will remember that Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
If Mary and Joseph were carrying the pre-born Jesus to Bethlehem today, they would find that there would be plenty of room in the inn, but they wouldn't be able to get into Bethlehem, because it would be under military closure and curfew. And if, by good luck and sheer determination, they were able to skirt around the military checkpoints and roadblocks by climbing over hills and through fields, they would find the inn closed - not full, but closed for lack of visitors.
Christmas Eve will be a silent night, but not a holy night. All is not calm; all is not bright in the not-so-little town of Bethlehem. It hasn't been for a couple of years. The city of the birth of the Prince of Peace is abandoned and tense. War and violence hover over the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd's Field like the heavenly host of angels once did.
The Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem and in the surrounding villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, might be allowed out of their homes for a couple hours to walk to church on Christmas, Insh'allah (God willing). They most certainly, will not be joined by any Christians living outside the immediate Bethlehem area. The few Christians, who still live in Palestine (or the West Bank or the occupied territories or Samaria and Judea, depending on your political persuasion and who drew the map that you are using), are separated and isolated. They are divided by Israeli settlements and by-pass roads, are kept from moving about freely. An image that helps me to understand this is that of a piece of "Swiss cheese."
Bethlehem, Taybeh, Bir Zeit and the other towns and villages in which there are Christians, are like the holes in the swiss cheese that are kept from connecting with one another. Even the Christians who live in Jerusalem, just a few miles from Bethlehem, will not get to Bethlehem for Christmas, as the Christians who live in Bethlehem were not able to get to Jerusalem for Easter.
May the Prince of Peace, himself born in the town when it was under military occupation, be born anew in Bethlehem at Christmas. So that his presence - along with our concern for the believers and our efforts on their behalf - will bring peace through justice in the land where Jesus first cried; where the angels first sang; where the shepherds were first struck with great fear; and, where Christians first believed.'
Earlier this week, Brother Vincent Malcolm, the Principal of Bethlehem University spoke to a small gathering in London. Sue Plater was there, and drew the following comments out of her notes:
'The mood in Bethlehem is very somber, when usually it is very festive, especially just now with the feast days that end Ramadan. Although it has been declared that Christmas has been cancelled, the Franciscans have responded to say that festivities may have been cancelled but the spiritual meaning of Christmas will still be remembered, and cannot be removed even by the Israeli army.
During this time of curfew, we strive to maintain some academic life. We are changing the way we teach from the more traditional methods of lectures and seminars, to a system that supports students working at home. When the curfew is lifted for five hours, we usually get notice the day before. We announce on TV and in the papers what academic timetable we will run, and allowing for one hour’s travelling through checkpoints each way for all students and teachers to cram in three hours of work. It is so important for the students to meet together - the social value is as important as the academic learning, and both are targeted by preventing the students from reaching University. The staff and students are all heroic and courageous to continue coming through checkpoints, with all the humiliation that can entail, to try to keep Palestinian education going. We tell them that the Israeli Government wants them to remain ignorant, and understanding that encourages them to keep going. When they do arrive, there is a feeling that the University (which is the biggest employer in Bethlehem) is an island of stability in a sea of turmoil.
The Israeli Government is sensitive to media opinion in the West (although it sees that it is getting away with so much without criticism), so we ask for support in highlighting our plight. We ask you to help us provide some hope to our Palestinian students (who are both Muslim and Christian - around 68% Muslim and 32% Christian in this traditionally Christian area of the West Bank), by showing your solidarity with us in our suffering.'
Our suggested action is introduced by a letter from Afif Safieh, the Palestinian General Delegate to the UK and the Vatican, to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, in which he requests the Pope's help in enabling President Arafat to attend Christmas Mass in Bethlehem in accordance with tradition, and highlights the suffering of the Palestinian people.
O Your Holiness,
Mr Raanan Gissin has been a questionable and controversial spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the last two years. Yesterday, he simply promoted himself to the position of spokesperson for God pontificating on who can and who should not attend the Christmas Mass in the Church of the Nativity.
President Arafat has declared, years ago, that Christmas in Palestine is a national feast for Christians and Muslims alike. His presence at the Christmas celebrations will be symbolically a powerful message of fraternity and hope not only on the local level but internationally at a moment when the world in turmoil needs badly such gestures.
The statement of Mr Gissin is a blatant violation of the Status Quo Agreement observed in Bethlehem since the 19th century. The presence of the official authority at the Christmas Mass has been scrupulously respected during the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the Jordanian rule, the Israeli occupation and since the birth of the Palestinian National Authority. Knowing the Israeli governmental attitude to International Law, I suspect that this is probably an argument to which Mr Gissin will be totally insensitive.
The Catholic Church has not been insensitive to the ordeal of the Palestinian people and You, Your Holiness, have heard our cry for freedom out of captivity and bondage. Receiving Israeli President Katsav tomorrow be our voice for Peace with Justice. Our Calvary has lasted for too long. Let us not feel abandoned by the world.
We ask that you also take action on behalf of the Christian community of Bethlehem, and all the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.
We suggest that you write to the Israeli Ambassador in London, with a copy to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, asking that Israel pay proper respect to the Christian celebration of Christ's birth - allowing the titular head of the Palestinian people, Yassir Arafat, to attend Christmas Mass in keeping with the tradition of centuries (through war, occupation and peace), and ending the brutal curfew that traps Palestinian families in their homes, preventing them not only from worshipping, but also from attending work, schools and colleges, getting to hospital, visiting the sick and elderly, and even holding funerals. This is collective punishment of civilians on a cruel scale, and is in contravention of international law. That it should be happening at Bethlehem at Christmas is one example that we can protest at this time of year in solidarity with the people who hold the heritage of the faith that was born there.
Please also write to the various TV and news media to ask how they will be covering the plight of the people of Bethlehem this Christmas. Let us all raise our voices not just to sing traditional carols this Christmas, but also on behalf of the oppressed and suffering.
Garth Hewitt, Director, and Sue Plater, Associate Director, Amos Trust.
His Excellency Zvi Shtauber
2 Palace Green
London W8 4QB
Rt Hon Jack Straw
Foreign & Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
Please also consider using these alternative words to "O Little Town" as a meditation on the plight of the community of Bethlehem and all the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza before singing the traditional carol:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and restless sleep, a missile glideth by.
And over dark streets soundeth the mortar's deadly roar,
While children weep in shallow sleep for friends who are no more.
How silently, how silently their hope has gone away.
No laughter rings; no choir sings in shepherds' fields this day.
The angels in the heavens are hushed in sad lament.
Back in exile - the Holy Child - finds Herod won't relent.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Your love bring down on David's town, drive fear and hate away.
Awake the ire of nations, let justice be restored.
Rebuild the peace in silent streets where once Your love was born.
by Don Hinchey, Littleton, Colorado. November 2000
Adapted by Garth Hewitt, November 2002.
The following is another "alternative" carol, produced by Just Peace UK.
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
In the bleak midwinter,
Refugees made moan;
Sharon stood like iron,
Bush was like a stone.
Tanks were rolling, tank on tank,
Tank on tank,
Through the camps of Gaza
And the West Bank.
How can we stop him,
Silence of the nations
Lets him carry on.
Where is there a wise man
Who could do his part?
Tell the world to stop him
With its heart.