by Matthew Davies
For nearly three and a half years Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East have lived in fear and anxiety, with the stark reality that their lives are saturated by the hostilities and violence in their region.
When the Palestinian flag was officially raised in Manger Square on 21 December 1995, Bethlehem began a new era marked by the sincere longing for peace and for extensive regional coexistence and development. Unfortunately, negotiations for a final settlement ended in deadlock and a new wave of violence, known as the Second Intifada, erupted on 28 September 2000.
In many ways our attention has been diverted this year from the atrocities in Israel and Palestine as the media has focussed its attention on the War in Iraq. Although attacks on civilians have decreased in recent months, widespread pain and suffering continue to overshadow the lives of many.
The Jerusalem Times announced on 5 December 2003 that Christmas celebrations are cancelled in Bethlehem this year and only a Christmas tree and few ornaments will be erected at Manger Square. The Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, the Very Revd Ross Jones, said that although the anxieties and paranoia level in Palestine have diminished, many of the locals are still fearful of entering Manger Square.
The Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, Bishop of Jerusalem, said that he fears there will be fewer people visiting Manger Square this year. “Most roads have been damaged and there is hardly any lighting between the checkpoints and the nativity,” he said. “Many people will avoid going in fear of getting stuck at the checkpoints.”
Although few outbreaks of violence have been reported in the media recently, Bishop Riah told ACNS that, only this morning, Israeli tanks killed four Palestinians. “My concern now is that, just a week before Christmas, this will almost certainly provoke some retaliation,” he said. “The Christian community, just like the Muslim and Jewish communities, are losing hope.”
Having lived in Jerusalem for twelve years, the Revd Canon John L. Peterson, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Office, said, “I hear from Christians all around the world how unimaginable it is to see Bethlehem so desolate, especially at Christmas.”
In his Christmas letter, Dean Ross Jones said that the greatest hope is that humanity has grown weary of violence and is ready to listen. “Had the world not been ready to listen to Jesus, we may never have heard of him,” he said. “Yet we have done a good job of not listening for lo these many years.”
Despite the dire circumstances in which people are living, faith still brings hope and there are many who are working hard towards making this Christmas special for those who have very little. The Dean of St George’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Yazeed Said, has announced a full schedule of services for the season.
A project entitled Holiday Shoe Boxes, which was started last year by Jo Fitzalan Howard, gives over 800 Muslim, Christian and Jewish children with special needs a bit of holiday cheer. The ex pat women’s groups from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem joined forces to decorate and fill shoeboxes with small dolls, trucks, crayons, soft balls, marbles, Lego, hats and scarves etc.
“Items were carefully chosen to fit the needs and ages of the particular child,” said Mrs Gwin Jones, a member of the ex pat women’s group from Jerusalem and wife of Dean Ross Jones. “Care was also taken to see that children within the same family had equally filled boxes and that each child received a box with his or her name on it.”
St George’s College Jerusalem acted as a ‘clearing house’ for the Jerusalem activities but the action happened all across the two cities as families joined in the shopping and decorating. “Some money remains and there are plans to help the children of Jayyus - one of the villages greatly affected by the wall,” said Mrs Jones. “We are grateful to the generous merchants in Tel Aviv and East and West Jerusalem for their large discounts that allowed us to take care of so many deserving children.”
Bishop Riah is also trying to reach out to the needy and those who have been affected by the violence visiting as many people as possible and sending Christmas gifts to more than 500 individuals and families. “We must cling onto the hope,” he said. “And put Christ back in Christmas.”