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Bethlehem deserves more than a single voice

Throughout 2011, as in previous years, the British political class remained pitifully indifferent to the tragedy of Bethlehem. When the Archbishop of Canterbury moved a debate in the House of Lords in early December on the situation of Christians in the Middle East, Bethlehem received but a token mention. One individual, however, has been prepared to buck the trend. In his Christmas midnight mass the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, not only offered a special prayer for the people of Bethlehem, he also urged his congregation to pull the wool from over their eyes.

"See more clearly all those things which disfigure our world," Archbishop Nichols said. "We too live in a land of deep shadow." That shadow, he continued, "falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight." The Archbishop said the people of the parish of Beit Jala in the occupied West Bank are preparing for a legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel.


In the year ahead, dozens of families face the loss of their property as the Israeli occupation authority completes its apartheid wall around and within the West Bank by taking it across Bethlehem. In the weeks before Christmas, many locals were injured in peaceful protests against their forced displacement and the theft of their land. They say that the wall will not only annex their territory for illegal foreign settlers, but will also fragment the West Bank even further and cut off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, which is just eight kilometres away.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols's Christmas message was a far cry from the opaque debate that took place in the Lords on 9th December. Neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Chief Rabbi, nor, indeed, any other speaker, said anything explicitly about Bethlehem. As is often the case with career politicians the noble peers seemed content to relegate the issue to the margins, opting instead to dwell on the condition of Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

While acknowledging "the case of the Palestinians, one of the most sophisticated and professional Christian populations in the region, but now a fast-shrinking presence as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank", the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted that, "Issues in Egypt are inevitably among the most immediate in the minds of many of us just now."

Let there be no doubt that attacks on Christians and their places of worship are reprehensible, wherever they occur, from Iraq to Nigeria, and must be denounced unreservedly in the strongest possible terms; every effort must be made to prevent them. However, there must be no exceptions to such condemnation. If for no other reason than its historic significance for their faith, being the birth place of Jesus, Christians must do whatever it takes to save the little town of Bethlehem. The obvious problem is that people feel unable to condemn the Israeli occupation as unreservedly as they must condemn disgraceful attacks like those in Nigeria on Christmas Day. They must demonstrate "balance" in the Palace of Westminster, and find scapegoats.

Lord Wright of Richmond was typical when he spoke in the Upper Chamber on 9th December: "Israeli abuse of the Christian Palestinian community is not the only problem that they have to endure. In the area of Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, where Christians made up some 85 per cent of the population a generation ago, and where the Christian population is now said to be less than 15 per cent of the total, extreme Islamists have made life for the Christians even worse than it was already, with all the frustrations and indignities caused by the occupation".

By not identifying the so-called "extreme Islamists" and what they were guilty of, the noble lord's intervention exposed the reason why such superficial debate has no resonance beyond Westminster.

More disheartening was the diagnosis of Lord Storey: "As we have heard, the Christian population is declining in the Middle East. That decline has two main reasons: emigration and declining birth rates. Emigration represents the end of a long process of exclusion and persecution. On the West Bank, a nearly permanent boycott of Christian businesses is the problem."

Whether Lord Storey was ill-informed or simply disingenuous is a moot point. It goes without saying that he should know that Israel's dispossession of Bethlehem's once thriving Christian community to make way for illegal Jewish settlers has been the primary cause of their exodus to Sydney and Perth in Australia.

In the few days before Christmas four mosques were attacked by arsonists in the occupied West Bank. The attackers were not called "terrorists" by the Israeli government; that pejorative term is reserved for Palestinians and Muslims only. They were, according to the Israelis, "trouble-makers". A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territories was more revealing. It said that the policies and laws enacted by the Israeli government are largely responsible for the upsurge of settler attacks against Palestinians and their property. In the absence of any prosecutions of offenders, said the report, the attacks will continue.

The fact that armed gangs are allowed to roam the West Bank and plunder the property of Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, is not a novelty peculiar to the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. It is a well-established modus operandi intrinsic to the Zionist colonial project. The case of west Jerusalem bears this out. When Israel captured the city in 1948 some 10,000 Arab homes – most of them fully furnished – were looted. The Palestinians in this part of the city were said to be among the most prosperous Arabs in the entire Middle East.  The city was emptied of its population. Truckloads of furniture, carpets, art, jewellery, clothes and libraries were taken from homes and delivered to high ranking Israeli leaders and officers.

In 2012 Israel will continue to change the physical and demographic character of Bethlehem, and Britain's House of Lords and other parliamentary bodies in the West will continue to turn a blind eye to the real villains of the piece, the state of Israel and its supporters in those self-same parliaments. Ultimately, though, Israel's oppression will be brought to an end. The Palestinians are not immune from the political changes sweeping the region. They too aspire to freedom and independence. The foreign policy which is indifferent to Jewish settler violence is legally and morally culpable, Britain's included.

In 2003 the former Bishop of Jerusalem Riah Abu el-Assal, warned Tony Blair a month before the invasion of Iraq that if he carried out the invasion of the country, "You will be responsible for emptying Iraq, the homeland of Abraham, of Christians." The same could be said today to those noble peers who ignore Israel's responsibility for the deteriorating situation of Palestinian Christians whose presence in the cradle of Christianity is increasingly tenuous. Although Archbishop Vincent Nichols's Christmas message puts his fellow primate in Lambeth Palace to shame, why is his the only voice speaking out for the little town of Bethlehem? If parliamentarians have genuine concern for Christian communities overseas, let them stand up for the original Christian community, the Living Stones of Palestine, and challenge Israel's increasingly belligerent occupation.

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Commentary & AnalysisEurope & RussiaIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUK
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