The Fate of Bethlehem

Most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims. Largely unaware of Bethlehem's historic community of Palestinian Christians, only 15 percent of Americans realize that Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.

The Christians of the Holy Land are known as the Fifth Gospel or The Living Stones of the Church because Christ was born into our community and took his disciples from among our ancestors. Tragically, our community in Bethlehem may not survive another two generations if trends noted in a 2004 United Nations report on Christianity in Bethlehem continue.

Bethlehem has survived because it has remained open to the world, offering hospitality to pilgrims for centuries. This openness is threatened by the Israeli-built concrete wall and electric fences that encircle Bethlehem. The wall is being built around Bethlehem's urban core, though at the closest point Bethlehem sits one mile from the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. The wall separates Bethlehem from neighboring villages and threatens to cut off 70 percent of Bethlehem's land, thus facilitating the expansion of Israel's illegal West Bank settlements.

Our lives are intimately bound up, economically and socially, with Jerusalem's Christian community. Yet the wall and checkpoints prevent us from reaching that city, only 20 minutes away. Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity and Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher and their guardian Christian communities have been severed from each other. The wall has caused a drastic reduction in visiting pilgrims. It has also meant that our livelihoods – dependent on land and water annexed by Israel in the name of security – have shriveled before our eyes, causing a gradual exodus of Palestinian Christians.