On the Road To Bethlehem

John Aves
Near Bethlehem Checkpoint
Sunday, 14 December, 2003

"Where do you come from?" the question comes.  "Norwich in England," I say and for a moment there is a brief flicker of recognition in his eyes.  Perhaps he’s been there or has a relative in England but there is no time to talk; other cars in the line are pressing their urgency to get through.  The passport is handed back by the Israeli soldier who appears all of 18 years old.  We drive through the checkpoint after our normal ritual of approximately three quarters of an hour queuing.  That’s on a good day.

The above means that I have just come though the main checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, crossing from Israel proper to the West Bank.  I have made the crossing several times now in a private car and sometimes I return by foot through the checkpoint on the way back to Jerusalem.  On waiting to get through, I am confronted by the sight of tired Palestinian working men trying to return to Bethlehem.  Taxis can only go to one side of the checkpoint and these men must walk through before grabbing another taxi on the other side.  In the queue, I stand waiting to be beckoned.  I place my rucksack under the metal detector, empty out my mobile phone, wallet, etc. and walk through before picking them up on the other side.  Then I am face to face with a soldier holding his gun, looking again at my passport.  Subjects of Her Britannic Majesty are treated lightly, usually with a grim smile and even the occassional "have a good day."  But I have also seen people greeted with arguments and a certain amount of brow beating.  My stomach churns and memories return of passing through places like this when travelling into East Berlin 25 years ago, before the wall fell.

Travelling into Bethlehem from the checkpoint, I pick up a taxi driving the straight road into town.  Suddenly the car swerves away from the main road, for up front are ugly concrete blocks and armed Israeli soldiers again.  If I weren’t in the Middle East, I could hardly guess that somewhere in the middle of this is Rachel’s tomb.  Rachel was the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin.  The tomb is a shrine, sacred to Jews but also revered by Christians and Muslims. So revered is she that, though well into Bethlehem, the area is to be annexed and become part of Jerusalem some six miles away.  The action will cut off some 500 people from Bethlehem and deny access to the adjoining Islamic cemetery.  There is even talk of a special Jewish religious school being established.

Doing the wide tour to navigate around the shrine, we return to the main street and yet another roadblock, marking the start of the Palestinian Authority’s area.  Two Palestinian soldiers, without getting out of their chairs, wave us through into the teeming market shopping area.  In moments I am in Manger Square, before the Church of the Nativity.  Given the intifada, and the gauntlet of soldiers, I’m not surprised that it’s empty of tourists, except for two film crews documenting their absence and the boarded up shops.  Bethlehem is on the verge of economic collapse, with 60% of the population unemployed.  The town’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, has said that the Israeli closures and checkpoints have turned Bethlehem into a "ghetto".  Apart from religious celebrations, things are to be subdued this Christmas season.  There is only one Christmas tree tastefully decorated in the adjoining Peace centre, an electronic Father Christmas bawling out carols and a few lights.

Such restraint naturally attracts me, the average clergyman, who bemoans each year the commercialisation of Christmas.  But lest I think in the midst of so much violence  that Christians come out of this at all well, my guide book reminds me that in 1984 there were running battles between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks over the cleaning of the church.  I have also seen the thick steel door which divides Greek Orthodox parts of the church from the Catholic.

I am left reflecting sadly that at least under the Roman occupation Mary and Joseph got into Bethlehem.  Under present circumstances, I wonder if they would have made it.  Into the mood of pessimism these familiar words come back to give hope:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold
When, with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole earth send back the song
Which now the angels sing!

Wishing you all a peaceful Christmas.

Canon John is the priest in charge of St Giles in Norwich and on a sabbatical  working for the World Council of Churches as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Israel and Palestine