Palestinian Christians in the village of Beit Jala in the occupied West Bank have written an open letter to Pope Francis in protest at the Israeli decision to build a Wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem for the benefit of the illegal Jewish settlements. The Pope has been urged to ask Israel to stop the construction of the so-called Separation Wall in Bethlehem.
The representatives of Beit Jala, which is near Bethlehem said, "We are at risk of seeing most of our land seized by the Israeli occupation army, which has actually started the construction of the wall annexing all the Christian Palestinian land." The writers accused the Israeli authorities of wanting to "separate Bethlehem as well as other regions from Jerusalem and our holy places".
The Christians pointed out that they have been left alone to face the Israeli aggression against unarmed people. "Despite Israeli threats, we are still fighting to remain in our country," they insisted. The Pope's election, they said, brought hope that things would change.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Vatican; the letter described Peres as "one of the main masterminds behind the policy of Israeli settlement in occupied Palestine."
Last week, an Israeli court ruled in favour of constructing the separation wall through the Cremisan Valley, near Bethlehem in the West Bank. For over a century, many of Beit Jala's Christians have cultivated vineyards there to produce the wine used in the church. The valley is also famous for its Roman Catholic monastery.
However, the route of the Wall, which the Palestinians call the "Apartheid Wall", will split the valley in two, with Beit Jala, Bethlehem and their surrounding villages separated from most of their agricultural land, which will be on the Israeli side of the structure. Most of this land belongs to the Palestinian Christians in Beit Jala.
The Palestinians accuse Israel of using the Wall to annex the areas surrounding Bethlehem to separate it from Jerusalem, no more than 5 kilometres away.
Israeli officials say that the construction of the Wall, which began in 2002, is for security reasons and to prevent Palestinian fighters from infiltrating Israel. At the moment, 400 out of the intended 700 kilometres have been constructed out of cement, barbed wire and the most advanced electronic surveillance systems. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that parts of the Wall are illegal and should be torn down.
Nabil Shaath, a member of the PLO executive committee, told Agence France Presse, "Building the Wall in the Bethlehem area is an attack against the Palestinian social structure and the Palestinian Christian presence."
He added: "Separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem for the first time in history, and keeping Palestinians, mainly Christians, from their land in order to build and expand Israeli settlements, walls and checkpoints is a cruel crime that closes further the chances for peace based on the two-state solution."