Posted by: noticeable | December 16, 2006

Christmas 2006: West Bank poverty affects Bethlehem Christians

News of Christmas 2006 in the Holy City of Bethlehem, Palestine, is quite shameful. As Israel remains steadfast in its pursuit to rid the land of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, its effect on Christianity cannot be ignored by those who claim adherence to the faith (and other justice-seeking people).

In the following piece, Bethlehem’s Catholic mayor calls on the support of Christians wordwide for the Holy City in this dark time. Please read on.

West Bank poverty affects Bethlehem Christians

Town’s Christian residents describe sober atmosphere, seek holiday cheer amid ongoing financial crisis

Abu Khalil is a man with alcohol on his mind. He hardly drinks the stuff himself, but for the past 40 years he and his father have sold it for a living, and the life of an alcohol salesman in Bethlehem these days is poor enough to drive a man to drink.

With less than two weeks before Christmas, this should be the busiest time of the year for Khalil, a member of Bethlehem’s once vibrant but now steadily shrinking Christian community. But a sharp drop in living standards in the West Bank since the 2000 intifada has put even alcohol beyond the reach of many Palestinians. In the run-up to Christmas, Khalil has hardly sold a miniature-sized bottle of scotch, let alone any of the fancy labels of wine, brandy, vodka and Champagne that line the dusty shelves of his store. “It’s miserable. I have to say it is very bad,” says Khalil, 45, sitting at a broken down desk at the back of his narrow, white-walled shop, chatting to a friend who has come to keep him company because he has so few customers. “Ten years ago, we would have been booming at this time of year – it’s Christmas after all. But this year, I am lucky if I make 1,000 shekels ($220) in a week.” While that might not seem like a small income, not only does Khalil have to use it to cover his costs, he also has to support his wife, four children, three brothers, sister and his mother.Life in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has grown steadily worse over the past six years as Israel has increased security, erecting



dozens of military security checkpoints across the West Bank.Tourists and religious pilgrims, the major contributor to Bethlehem’s economy, have stayed away in ever increasing numbers, while residents of the city have found it much harder to get to nearby cities like Jerusalem to work. Unemployment is now estimated at around 65 percent, city workers say.

Poor tidings

Mayor Victor Batarseh, a Roman Catholic who was born in Bethlehem in 1934, says he cannot remember a worse run up to the celebration of Jesus’s birth.

“It’s the most difficult year we have had, I promise you,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Not only for me as mayor, but for the city as a whole, it has been very tough. There is no tourism, there is no income. We don’t even have the money to pay our employees.” At the peak of tourism, about five years ago, Batarseh said up to 100,000 people would visit each month. That fell sharply as the intifada picked up but still stood at 40,000 a month five months ago. Now, Batarseh said only about 20,000 a month come, and they gradually are spending less and are not staying overnight. The four-star Shepherd Hotel, one of the largest in Bethlehem with 85 rooms, has only 10 percent occupancy. The receptionist said there were currently no bookings for Christmas, although she expected that to change soon. At the money changers on one of Bethlehem’s main streets, the downturn in tourism is visible in the numbers. Whereas five years ago the owner Abu Nader used to exchange around $5,000 and 2,000 euros each day, now it’s $1,000 and maybe 500 euros. “When tourists come, life is good for me,” said Abu Nader with a broken smile. “Right now, there are no tourists.” Despite the hardships, Batarseh, the mayor, is determined to make sure this Christmas is celebrated like any other, with a decorated tree and lights twinkling throughout the city. While the Christian population, which stood at 90 percent in the 1940s, has declined to stand at only around 35 percent today due largely to emigration, Bethlehem still has a very Christian feel and Batarseh said he hoped to maintain that. “We really need help from all our Christian brothers everywhere in the world,” he said. “This is the city where Jesus Christ was born. Now is the time to help us.”


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