It’s Christmas – the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus two millennia ago. One of the carols we often sing is, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see they lie.” Until this year I envisioned a peaceful village when I sang it, replete with angelic choirs, awestruck shepherds, and the blessed Virgin Mary and Joseph admiring the newborn baby Jesus. This summer I imagined myself celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem this year, anticipating my visit to Palestine.
Although I went to Bethlehem in November instead, I’ll never envision Christmas in Bethlehem as peaceful again, until peace comes to Palestine and Israel. No, my memories are of a city divided by a wall, checkpoints, guns and conflict. Friends who live there tell me there are precious few Silent Nights there either; more often, soldiers are raiding houses looking for militants.
If Jesus’ parents were modern-day Israelis, they wouldn’t even be able to enter Bethlehem. Upon their approach, they would first see the separation wall, then border checkpoints, then the armed guards interrogating people entering the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Jews with Israeli passports are denied entry. The courage to even try would probably fail them, because as they got closer, an ominous red sign would come into focus, warning Israelis it is illegal to enter, and they were even risking death to continue.
Among my Christmas decorations this year is a beautiful new nativity scene from Bethlehem. Handcrafted from olive wood from the region, it has a feature that I’ve never seen in a nativity scene before – its own separation wall.
Saying mass in Bethlehem tonight, Patriarch Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, shared a hope that all Christians long for, and pray to the Lord Jesus to fulfill:
"I hope next year there will be no separation wall and I hope we will have bridges of peace instead. Peace comes from justice and we have a cause which we hope will be solved soon" (as quoted in BBC News).
We hope and we pray. The conflict is primarily between Jews and Arabs, most of whom are Muslim. We all believe in the same God. Jews and Arabs are currently killing each other for the right to worship Him on the same hill. Christians’ hands aren’t guiltless; it’s just been centuries since we got into the fray. Why don’t we pray together instead? Why don’t we move our places of worship over a few yards, or kilometers, instead? Why don’t we practice the Ten Commandments, which we all profess (especially “Thou shalt not kill”), instead? Can God demand, or be pleased by, or even forgive, killing in His name? Christians can never believe killing in the name of God is right (although we debate whether war is ever justified), because Jesus preached that not only should we not kill, we cannot so much as call our brother a fool without sin (see Matthew 5:22 in the Bible).
Please, peace-loving, and especially God-fearing friends of all religions, do what you can to promote justice in Palestine. As Pope Jean Paul II said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Especially at Christmas, I pray for the peace of Palestine and Israel.