Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Bethlehem

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.

Matthew 2:6.

Map of Israel with West Bank, Golan Heights,
and Gaza Strip (©Koret-Communication Ltd.)
When you travel in Israel as a Christian pilgrim you will notice that some of the historical sites are not in Israel but on Palestinian territories.

In fact, the territorial situation in the so-called West Bank is more complicated as stipulated in the so-called Oslo II Accord of 1995 between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Oslo II treaty defines three areas:

Area A is under full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority. Entry to this area is forbidden to all Israeli citizens and punishable by Israeli law. From time to time, however, Israeli Defense Forces enter the area to arrest suspected Palestinian militants. Known places in Area A are Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Ramallah, Jericho, 80 percent of Hebron, and notably Bethlehem. There are no Israeli settlements in Area A.

Area B is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. In this area are some 440 Palestinian villages and their surrounding lands but again no Israeli settlements.

Area C, the rest, i.e., 63% of the West Bank, is under full Israeli civil and security control. It was supposed to be gradually handed over to the Palestinians. This did not happen. Area C comprises declared "state land", Israeli outposts, and settlements including annexed East Jerusalem and the western shore of the Dead Sea. The Israeli Government has started to "protect" most of these territories by a high wall against Palestinian intruders.

When our group on the road to Bethlehem approached the opening in the wall between Area C and A that is covered by an Israeli checkpoint our Jewish guide Jonathan left the bus while we were searching for our passports that the border guards however did not check when looking into our innocent faces.

Passing the wall
We continued to Jesus' birthplace looking from the bus window on our way at - what the Israelis euphemistically call - the West Bank barrier. Even at a great distance the wall arose strange feelings.

The West Bank barrier winding through the Judea countryside
All is well organized in Bethlehem. Palestinian policemen showed our driver (he naturally was a Palestinian) the way to a big parking garage that we found nearly empty. Were the recent knife attacks in Israel to blame for the absence of other tourists? In fact, last week I read in Der Spiegel that the US had recently stepped up their travel warning for the Holy Land to the highest level. Unemployed tourist guides and vendors of devotional objects are singing the blues: This coming Christmas in Bethlehem is sad and depressing.

We walked up Manger Street to Manger Square lined by the Omar Mosque on one side ...


... and the Church of Nativity on the other side.


Our Palestinian guide for Bethlehem was late so I started looking around. An old lady on walking sticks came out of what was marked Casa Nova, Franciscan House of Pilgrims. She smiled at me and - addressing me in a rusty German with an Austrian accent- told me that she had just passed 90. She belonged to the Franciscan sisterhood who guards together with her Franciscan brothers the Holy Site. Now she enjoys her retirement in talking to pilgrims and tourists alike.

Sister Blandine "Nordic walking" in Bethlehem
Suddenly our Palestinian guide arrived. While he was still apologizing for being late I noticed a noisy crowd approaching. They were mostly women talking Russian walking straight into the Church of Nativity. Our group followed and soon stood in line in front of the church entrance of a height of only 160 cm. I felt like a rich man for it is written: Sooner a camel would pass through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).

Our Palestinian guide in front of the entrance like
Nevertheless I managed to enter the church although with difficulty regarding my passage as a penance. When I straightened up I found myself on a building site, the interior of the basilica being filled with noise and dust.

The Orthodox ladies were still in front of us moving slowly so we were blocked at the height of a table where a girl was selling candles. I bought a miserable one for 10 shekel and noticed that on the glued-on paper Bethlehem was written in Latin and in Cyrillic letters.


Although the Church of Nativity is under Franciscan control it is invaded by Orthodox Russians buying devotional objects en masse possibly for those they left behind. When I write behind I do not mean another group of Russian ladies following up.

Russian? icon with Our Lady and Child
Sandwiched between two cackling groups we continued to move on slowly taking a few steps downstairs. When our queue lazily wound around another corner I suddenly noticed the reason for our tardiness: A lady, iPhone in hand, was kneeling down to kiss a silver star ...

Not without my iPhone
... but not before she had put a one dollar bill into a nearby basket.


Every lady wanted to kneel, kiss Jesus' birthplace and donate her one dollar bill. I did not see any roubels, shekels, or euros only greenbacks, the US dollar being the key currency in Bethlehem. Where was my Christmas feeling? On our way out our Palestinian guide showed us ancient mosaics that however did not turn on any Christmas feelings either.

The mosaics are covered by wooden planks that are only opened by the guides
After having left the the Church of Nativity we paid a short visit to Bethlehem's Catholic parish church of St. Catherine of Alexandria ....

Statue of Saint Jerome meaning man with the holy name.
He died in Bethlehem in 420. Jerome is Doctor of the Church
 and patron saint of Freiburg's university.
... but we had to wait until mass had finished.


On our way back to the bus ...

... learning Arabic numbers

Following a frugal but delicious lunch of chickpeas at the Ein Karem campus of the Hadassah Medical Center we had to wait in front of the hospital's synagogue to see the stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall.


To our left there was the entrance to the Jean Goldwurm* Auditorium ...
*An American benefactor. The Institute for Pediatric Medicine was named after him.


... to our right Israeli stamps ordered in four rows and three columns, i. e., 180 stamps @ 100 shekel each presenting a value of more than U$ 4600. These stamps give only a "small" impression of those windows standing for Jacob's twelve sons, progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.


When the man with the keys arrived and opened the door of the synagogue our group was blinded by those overhead jewels of translucent fire.

From left: Presenting Jacob's sons Judah, Zebulon, Issahar, and Dan
Chagall said about his windows: The thoughts [to make the certain light when reading the Bible obvious] have nested in me for many years, since the time when my feet walked on the Holy Land, when I prepared myself to create engravings of the Bible. They strengthened me and encouraged me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish people, that people that lived here thousands of years ago.

From left: Presenting Jacob's sons Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin

©Lifegate Rehabilitation
In a Bethlehem suburb our group visited a charitable organization founded by some Germans named Lifegate Rehabilitation. Lifegate offers "a gate to life" to people with disabilities in the West Bank. The movement is supported by official German charity organizations and private sponsors but not by the Palestinian Authorities. Fact is, that the Authorities do not invest in social programs due to the lack of money? In the beginning only Christian Arabs called on the services offered to disabled persons as there are Kindergarten, schooling, and handicraft workshops. In the meantime Lifegate is flooded with requests from Arabs of Islamic faith too. Several extensions to their premises were already built but there is still a lack of space and personnel to fulfill all the demands for help.

We visited Lifegate's installations and looked into the workshops where handicapped and mentally retarded men and women were producing goods that are in part offered for sale in an annexed shop.

They are sewing shirts for the Catholic Boy Scouts. Note the coat of arms of the patriarchy of Jerusalem depicted by the middle red cross. The smaller crosses represent the other four patriarchies of the primitive Christian church as there were Alexandria, Antiochia, Constantinople, and ... Rome.



Near the entrance to Lifegate the wall is decorated with a mosaic presenting a scene as described in John 5:1-9:


Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves. Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”
The sick man said, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.”
Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.” The man was healed on the spot. He picked up his bedroll and walked off.

Suddenly I had the feeling of a Christmas at Bethlehem.

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