Tuesday, December 05, 2006


No post could do justice to the rich history a town like Bethlehem is steeped in. It struck me though with the time of the year to read more into the background of the Nativity, a story we know so well, we forget how fascinating it is. It has been great reading so expect more.

Bethlehem is most obviously the place the Holy Family travelled to on the order of King Herod to partake in a census and where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. The town and Church of the Nativity are therefore among the most revered holy sites of Christians around the world. The city also is significant to Jews because it is the burial place of the matriarch Rachel and the birthplace of King David. Samuel anointed David king in Bethlehem. In Hebrew, the town is Bet Lehem ("House of Bread") and, in Arabic, it is Bet Lahm ("House of Meat").

For centuries, Christian pilgrims have made the 5 mile walk from Jerusalem to Manger Square, location of the Church of the Nativity. Manger Square is the focus of activity of Christmas celebrations not once, but three times a year. In addition to the traditional Western celebration which begins on December 24, the Greek Orthodox mark their Christmas on January 6 and the Armenian observance is on January 19.

In the 1947 resolution by the United Nations General Assembly to partition Palestine, Bethlehem was included in the special international enclave of Jerusalem to be administered by the United Nations. Jordan occupied the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Many refugees from areas captured by Israeli forces in 1947 - 1948 came to Bethlehem. This influx of refugees changed the demography of Bethlehem considerably.

Jordan retained control of the city until 1967, when Bethlehem was captured by Israel along with the rest of the West Bank. Bethlehem was turned over to the Palestinian Authority as a result of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement. Bethlehem has a population of approximately 50,000 people, with the Muslims holding a slight majority.

One of the most high profile events of recent years to occur in Bethlehem as a consequence of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict was the siege at the Church of the Nativity. On April 2, 2002 armed Palestinian Arab terrorists forced their way into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the midst of over 200 nuns and priests, they sought refuge from Operation Defensive Shield, the Israel Defense Forces action against suicide bombing activity originating from West Bank locations. For 38 days, until May 10, 2002, the world watched as the gunmen refused to surrender their positions inside the Church. Only Israeli restraint and respect for the Christian shrine prevented the Palestinian desecration from turning into its destruction. The siege in itself serves as a microcosm for the differing version of events and conflicting stories that often emerge from so many confrontations and battles.

Bethlehem is currently surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, with the main road to Jerusalem cut off at the border of Jerusalem's municipal area (at Rachel's Tomb). Bethlehem residents are only allowed into Jerusalem with special permits that are usually refused. Travel to other parts of the Palestinian controlled territories of the West Bank is also impeded and sometimes prevented. The city has periodically been placed under strict curfew, preventing residents from leaving their homes. Palestinians are not allowed to enter the Jewish holy site of Rachel's Tomb. Due to security concerns, Israeli citizens cannot go to Bethlehem without a permit from the Israeli military authorities.

1 comment:

Seamus Ryan said...

Thanks for this interesting piece on the history of Bethlehem. We will hear a lot about this part of the world during this month and its good to have this background to Bethlehem. Good post.