“Bethlehem is Not a Good Place, My Friend…”
I am not a religious person and am certainly not a strong believer. Whilst I was raised as a Methodist and attended an Anglican school, if asked, I would say I am Agnostic.
However, I know my biblical stories and have a keen interest in history. I have no difficulty accepting that a charismatic man named Jesus lived 2000 years ago and led a new religious movement. The question mark I have in my mind is not over Jesus’ existence but with his divinity.
So, it was with some anticipation that Huckleberry B and I visited Bethlehem.
Given the indoctrination I received as a child, I had visions of a small town, a shining star, three wise men and a babe in a manger. The modern reality is quite different and rather disturbing.
For starters, Bethlehem – although very close to Jerusalem’s Old Town – now lies within the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The mood within the Palestinian Authority’s territory is quite different to the mood outside. We saw the Israeli checkpoint where Israeli soldiers – fully armed and tense – checked the credentials of those travelling from within the Palestinian Authority into Israel proper. We also saw the large fence the Israelis have constructed along the border. The Israelis say that each of these measures have been put in place to stop suicide bombers from leaving their homes within the Palestinian Authority and entering townships occupied by Jews, with holy death on their minds.
Most notably neither Avi nor his car were allowed into Bethlehem. Avi did not explain what would happen if he drove in, however, we can assume the worst. Instead, somewhat like hostages, we were driven to a safe meeting point where we swapped cars and a Palestinian guide took us into Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity, where Christ is said to have been born.
As I said, the mood in Bethlehem is quite different to the mood outside the Palestinian Authority. Whilst the rest of Israel is ordered, clean, purposeful and full of vegetation, Bethlehem was squalid, dirty, somewhat chaotic and barren. And, to put it mildly, we did not feel as welcome.
Our Palestinian guide – a Christian himself – said that most Palestinian Christians have left Bethlehem to live overseas. He, himself, was contemplating a move to Europe. He remarked several times that Bethlehem was `not a good place’.