The freedom of Bethlehem Christians is becoming endangered as the Israel occupation set up a new checkpoint at the city’s border, turning it into what many have called "an open-air prison."
Bethlehem, a historical city in Christianity where Jesus Christ was born some 2,000 years ago, has long been affected by the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since 2002, the construction of a barrier in the Israeli occupied territories to separate most of the West Bank from Israel, East Jerusalem, and Israeli settlement blocks, has made it difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church in Jerusalem.
While the city was once a destination of Christian pilgrims from all over the world, the separation barrier highly discourages tourism and hampers the economy of Bethlehem.
According to a statement from the Mayor of Bethlehem Dr. Victor Batarseh on Bethlehem Media Center, Israeli authorities have started on Nov. 15 – the Palestinian Independence Day – operating a new checkpoint at the northern entrance of Bethlehem.
Palestinians, foreign tourists and pilgrims leaving or entering Bethlehem are required to line in queue to be checked individually at the new checkpoint, including passport examination, and checking of things they bought through an x-ray device, Batarseh said.
A United Methodist Liaison in Bethlehem, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, described that after passing through the checkpoint, the track to Bethlehem led to a huge solid metal gate that is about 6- 8 inches thick and almost 8 meters high, according to sources from the International Center of Bethlehem (ICB). ICB is a Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented institution serving the whole Palestinian community.
According to Italy-based Asia news, priests, religious men and women and lay Christians in Bethlehem have recently launched an appeal to "Christian pilgrims," urging them to bring concrete solidarity against this "modern barbarity.”
In a letter of appeal, they said, "Bethlehem’s Christians are closed in an open-air prison by an eight-meter wall, which is robbing them of land essential for their survival."
They further condemned the closure of the traditional route to reach the Basilica of the Nativity and the opening of a new checkpoint as a form of "modern barbarism" to "strangle a town economically," to impose "daily insecurity on a people," and "to gross religious discrimination," read the statement obtained by AsiaNews.
According to the 2005 international religious freedom report release recently by the U.S. Department of State, the barrier and its checkpoints also impede the movement of religious clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries.
The Israeli Government's closure policy appeared to prevent several Christian religious leaders from reaching their congregations. In previous years, several clergymen reported that they were subject to harassment at checkpoints, the report added.
As more restrictions have imposed on Palestinian Christians, they were fear that "Palestine is becoming a Muslim state," AsiaNews reported the Bethlehem Christians as saying. Many Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have left the country since 2002.
According to the international religious freedom report, municipal officials in Bethlehem say approximately 2,800 Christians from the Bethlehem area have left the occupied territories for other countries due to religious discrimination, poor security, the restrictions resulting from Israeli closure policies and the construction of the Israeli separation barrier, and the declining economy.
Nowadays, approximately 98 percent of Palestinian residents of the occupied territories are Sunni Muslims, and Christians become a minority in the area closely tied to Jesus Christ. AsiaNews reported the percentage of Christian inhabitants in Bethlehem has dropped drastically from 80 percent in 1948 to 12 percent at present.
While the freedom of the inhabitants in Bethlehem, especially Christians, is under threat, Bethlehem has been trying its best to open itself to the international community.
An international campaign called "Open Bethlehem" encouraging people to visit the city was initiated by the civil society launched on Nov. 9 in London with a series of high-profile events and presentations. Those involve members of the All Party Palestine Group in the House of Commons of the British Parliament, Members of the British Parliament, Mayor of Bethlehem Dr Victor Batarseh and among others.
As part of the campaign, Bethlehem is granting citizenship to those who "uphold the values of a just and open society (and) remain a true friend of Bethlehem, through its imprisonment."
According to Palestine News Network (PNN), Pope Benedict XVI has accepted a Bethlehem passport from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, Dec. 3, becoming the first new citizen of Bethlehem following the launch of "Open Bethlehem" campaign.
Leila Sansour, the chief executive of "Open Bethlehem" said to PNN, "We are appealing to the Pope as well as all citizens of the world to help us uphold the message that was born in our city."
"Bethlehem – a name that resonates with millions of people around the world with a message of peace and hope for mankind is today an open-air prison. Over 400 entire Christian families have emigrated from the city in the last four years. We cannot allow the depopulation of Bethlehem and the erosion of a 2000 year-old heritage that anchors Christianity in the Middle East."
Nobel Prize Peace winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas; the Archbishop of Jerusalem, His Excellency Michel Sabah also endorse the campaign.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement from "Open Bethlehem" that he supports the initiative "because it is a nonviolent attempt to save a city that belongs to many in the world. It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation. I pray for the success of this peaceful initiative."