Bethlehem faces devastating prospect of annexation as it emerges from lockdown
I was in London when the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in Bethlehem. This meant I wasn’t going to be able to make my way back home any time soon. You could argue I was lucky to be stuck in London. Bethlehem’s modest medical facilities will never compare to those of Britain, but I was really worried about everyone I left behind. I sat down and thought about all the times Bethlehem made me worry about its plight- so many if you know the town’s recent history!
It was at this point that I received a call from Anthony Bailey OBE- a renowned inter-faith campaigner and a long term supporter of my work. He asked me to write about my town to share its latest news with members and supporters of the Constantinian Order. I was, of course, only delighted to do so and infinitely grateful that he had remembered us at this challenging time. Anthony has been a longstanding visitor and true friend of our city. More specifically, over the years, he has been a great supporter of Open Bethlehem- a project we launched in 2005 to put Bethlehem on the international map. In recognition of this support, Anthony was granted the Bethlehem passport, a symbolic honorary citizenship of the city.
Anthony joins an imminent list of persons from all walks of life who have been so recognised because of their friendship and loyalty to our city and its people. These include notable global leaders such as Pope Benedict XVI, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town and US President Jimmy Carter among others.
The Open Bethlehem project came as a response to the building of the Israeli wall around Bethlehem. The wall was and remains an enormous challenge to a city that has shaped its life by being open to the outside world and whose economic life is so reliant on tourism. As I say in my film “If Jesus was born in your town, you would have no choice”. Throughout history, even during dangerous times, people would come, and we learnt to welcome them. If you consider that most hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants in Bethlehem belong to Christians families (historically the city’s majority), you will realise how precarious the future of the Christian community is in Bethlehem. At the start of any economic or political unrest they are the first to leave simply because they can still afford to. Who would stay in a city without a future?!
Bethlehem keeps me worried
So, I hope you understand what I mean when I say Bethlehem keeps me worried. The most recent lockdown was announced there early, on 5 March. A few Greek tourists tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return home from Bethlehem and the city was immediately put on high alert. There simply was no capacity whatsoever to deal with any such threats. Bethlehem has only 4 ICU units. Few days later, all roads in and out of Bethlehem were locked. All tourist sites, all hotels and all public institutions including schools and universities had to shut down. Bethlehem had barely come out of a long period of depression and isolation so this was truly unbearable news.
It was remarkable, nevertheless, to see yet again, how resourceful my city proved to be in critical situations. The municipalities sprang into action. People pulled together. The CARITAS hospital in Bethlehem learnt how to do the testing. Hebron, a neighbouring town, quickly turned three factories to manufacturing protective personal equipment and a number of institutions continued teaching and conducting business online albeit at a fraction of their normal productivity- just like everywhere else. The Nativity church – the site marking the birth place of Jesus Christ, also went online allowing everyone to access Sunday mass while its actual doors remained closed.
What now for Bethlehem?!
At some point, it seemed that Bethlehem has managed to contain the virus. Three weeks ago, only 60 cases have been detected- all have recovered. But, with the recent opening of the town, the problem has resurfaced. Coming out is a huge health gamble for Bethlehem but the city can no longer sustain the lockdown. A large percent of the population lead a hand to mouth existence. Many of those who are in a slightly better position work in the tourism sector, which, due to current restrictions on international movement and flights, is not likely to begin the journey to recovery for at least two years.
It feels monstrous, at a time like this, that we also have to face the prospect of Israel’s decision to annex large chunks of the West Bank leaving us even more impoverished and disconnected. The process has already started brutally and at pace. Never mind a pandemic, our more fundamental challenges, our abject isolation now rise so acutely in front of our eyes. No matter how the chapter with the disease ends, we will still remain behind a wall, under military occupation, with no control over our resources or the running of our economy. We will still remain a city without a future.
It is times like these that remind us why we started Open Bethlehem and it is, at times like these, that we turn to you for support. We need to educate our friends around the world and people in positions of influence about the dangers we face. We need to help everyone understand the urgency and the need to work together to change the tide.
We appeal to you!
We want to preserve Bethlehem’s heritage. We want to remain an open city that symbolises “Joy and Goodwill to all” and, when you come to visit us, we want you to be able to celebrate mass with a vibrant indigenous Christian community that keeps churches alive so that you know you are visiting The Holy Land, not a biblical Disneyland.
We hope that this reminder might spark something in your heart and that you will take some time to find out more about Open Bethlehem and our work and that, just like Anthony Bailey, you would consider partnering with us and becoming a supporter of Open Bethlehem’s vital work in these challenging times.For more information on the work of Open Bethlehem please visit openbethlehem.org and for more information on the Constantinian Order please visit constantinian.org.uk . You can donat to Open Bethlehem here.