"This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You wait at a wall. It’s a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you're at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out- the reason the wall exists here, according to the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.
Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart, though in the compressed and fractious geography of the region, this places them in different realms. It can take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city: the majority of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90 percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only about 1/3 Christian. . .
The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth. . .
The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. . . The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main altar. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave. In the rural areas of Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens. Mangers are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull's-eye of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements, imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient church, is a silver star. This, it's believed, is where Jesus was born." National Geographic, Dec 2007, pg 64-65.
If you get a chance, this month's National Geographic contains a vivid and concise outline of the pressures that our fellow Christians face in modern day Bethlehem. Please keep the direct descendents of the world's first Christians in your thoughts as you pray for peace in the Middle East this Christmas.