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Christmas in the Holy Land
By Jamal Kanj
The Christian world is celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace this month. At a time when his birth place is surrounded with abominable Israeli separation walls reminiscent of the dark period that gave birth to Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story that Jesus Christ was born in the city of Bethlehem. After Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great, “King of the Jews,” ordered the killing of all children younger than two years old.

Fearful for the baby’s safety, Joseph and Mary fled Bethlehem for Egypt before returning four years later following the demise of King Herod. To avoid the son of the “evil king,” Mary and Joseph decided to skip Bethlehem and moved to their home town of Nazareth.

Ironically, more than 2000 years ago and under the horrid kingdom of an “evil king,” Mary and Joseph succeeded in making the 300 miles trip in peace. Today, in the only [Jewish] democracy in the Middle East, a 3 mile jaunt would be impossible to make freely. Like fellow Natives, Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem and surrounding villages can’t visit their holy places in Jerusalem without “unattainable” special security permits.

Native Palestinian Christians, the likely decedents of the first Christians who witnessed the star on the eve of December 25; represent the only lasting Christian presence in Palestine for over 2000 years. Now and for the first time in recorded history, Christian presence in the city of Nativity is under serious threat by Israeli military occupation and racial economic strangulation.

In an interview with the Voice of America, Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh indicated that, “due to the stress, either physical or psychological, and the bad economic situation, many people are emigrating, either Christians or Muslims, but it is more apparent among Christians, because they already are a minority.”

According to available demographic data, in 1947 Palestinian Christians made up 85% of the population in the city of Bethlehem, by 2005 their presence declined to 40%. In a 2006 poll of Bethlehem’s Christians, 78% attributed the ongoing exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to the Israeli travel restrictions in the area.

During this year’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Bethlehem’s Mayor condemned Israel of cutting off Bethlehem from “its twin city Jerusalem” and called for international sanctions to bring Israel in line with international human rights conventions.

Mayor Bataresh compared Palestine’s situation to “apartheid South Africa, before abandoning its racial discrimination in response to global boycott, sanctions, divestment, and local resistance.”

The Mayor added: “… boycotting Israel culturally, educationally, in sports, economics and trade… is the only way to make Israel come back to the negotiating table and make peace within six months. It worked with South Africa.” Absent of international pressure, it would be “a waste of time” to negotiate with Israel.

“We are peaceful people. We want peace,” he said after announcing the start of Christmas festivities. But it must be a “just and legal peace based on UN resolutions“ and the ”only way Israel will agree to peace is if it is forced.”

This month, world’s Christians will pray to the season’s lilt: Peace on Earth. Meanwhile, the same remain aloof to the anguish of their coreligionists, Native Christians in the birth place of the Prince of Peace.

Today, the descendants of the first Jesus’ followers continue to live under horrid occupation, just as Jesus lived and died at the hands of “evil” kings almost two millenniums ago.