Bethlehem is Struggling to Protect the Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, July 10. Jack Moore / Newsweek

The woman who holds the key didn't want to talk.

She goes by A'abla, and she's a member of a Muslim family entrusted with the key to the church in Bethlehem, the West Bank city where Christians believe Jesus was born.

During Ottoman rule, major churches like this one were divided into sections for Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians; Muslim families were asked to keep the peace between the different sects.

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I had heard the story about A'abla, but assumed it was a myth. But one afternoon, after weeks of asking around, I finally spotted her: a 70-year-old woman carrying a black wrought-iron key. She slipped through a dark wooden door at the back of the church and slowly walked down a curved staircase into the crowd of tourists below. I asked her to share some stories from her decades of living in the church. But she politely declined, then disappeared back up the staircase. She wouldn't even tell me her last name.

A'abla isn't the only legend surrounding the Church of the Nativity. The most enduring mystery of this place is the building—the oldest operating church in the world—and how it has survived 2,000 years of invasions, coups and natural disasters. What's saved it is the local population, both Christian and Muslim, who view the church as part of its living legacy and protect it accordingly.

Despite the local support, and the church's revered place in the heart of the world's most widely practiced religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken its toll on the church. Bethlehem is located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, behind the Israeli-built barrier, and a peace process that has been steadily deteriorating for nearly two decades.

In recent years, Bethlehem has been relatively peaceful. But its reputation, mainly due to the Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, which once led to gun battles in the streets between Israelis and Palestinians, has stained the holy city and left many Western tourists afraid of visiting the birthplace of Jesus.

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Christians hold crosses as they take part in the Eastern and Orthodox Church’s Good Friday procession in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 13, 2012. Heidi Levine/GroundTruth

The Western Christians who do come to Bethlehem tend to spend very little time and very little money in the city. Meanwhile, some of the policies leftover from the Ottoman Empire have prevented significant renovations to the church for over five centuries. A few years ago, the Palestinian Authority was able to negotiate emergency renovations to prevent the church's roof from falling in, and to make some other badly needed repairs. But the church, and the community surrounding it, are still largely neglected and very much in disrepair.

"I would like to send a message from Bethlehem to come to see the people who live here, who protected the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born and where the light came out," says Father Issa Thaljieh, an Orthodox priest who grew up just steps away from the church on Milk Grotto Street.

Thaljieh, 34, a Palestinian Christian, says he has a personal connection with the church. Tall, with a neatly groomed black beard and an easy smile, the young priest was baptized and married there. After a stint as a salesman and an actor, he decided the Church of the Nativity was where he wanted to become a priest. Fittingly, his first name, Issa, means Jesus in Arabic. "That's why I feel connected to this place, and I can't move," he says. "I've traveled many places, but Bethlehem has a special meaning for me."

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Elias Khoury, a Christian Arab, gazes at the church at Iqrit in the West Bank in December 1998. Heidi Levine/GroundTruth

Staying connected to the land where Jesus was born is important for Palestinian Christians. They are part of a 2,000-year-old indigenous tradition, the living presence of the Christian church in the Holy Land, and yet many tourists and outside observers have never even heard of, or even pondered their existence.

In the last 50 years, the number of Christians has steadily fallen from 80 percent of Bethlehem's population to just under 12 percent today. More widely, Christians in what was known as Palestine prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 made up 18 percent of the population when Israel was established by a vote at the United Nations. Now, Christians make up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

What's behind the dwindling Christian presence is complicated, Thaljieh and others say. Bethlehem's Christians have lower birth rates than their Muslim counterparts and tend to be well educated, making it easier for them to emigrate. But most people here say Christians have left the city due to its crippling economic conditions, high unemployment and the mounting restrictions that come from living in occupied territory and makes like difficult here for Muslims and Christians alike.

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Israeli border police stand guard as Christian pilgrims from Serbia carry wooden crosses along Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrow" in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 14,2017. Heidi Levine/GroundTruth

"The worst thing in Palestine is the stress," says Fadi Ghattas, who works for the Bethlehem municipality and lives down the street from Thaljieh. "Sometimes I go to Europe and I think that people are very quiet on the inside. But our lives are full of stress."

Bethlehem is a town of stone and stucco homes built along a steep hillside that overlooks distant pastures where sheep still graze along the chalky hillsides of the West Bank. Look past those pastures, however, and the city is surrounded by Israeli settlements with their white walls and red-tile roofs, their gun turrets and coils of barbed wire.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has made Bethlehem a difficult places to live. It has the highest poverty rate in the West Bank and an unemployment rate of 27 percent, according to municipality figures. (During the worst months of the last recession in the U.S., the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent.) This is despite the fact that the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism estimates that two million tourists visited Bethlehem in 2016.

A damaged Virgin Mary statue in Bethlehem. Heidi Levine/GroundTruth

But according to researchers, few of these tourists stay overnight in Bethlehem or contribute much, if anything at all, to the local economy. Much of this is due to security concerns. The U.S. State Department has messages on its website warning tourists of the "complex security situation" in the West Bank and telling them of the potential of death and injury. The website does not mention that Bethlehem has been relatively peaceful since the end of the Second Intifada around 2005. Though there has been a spate of stabbings in the West Bank over the last few years, the murder rate in Bethlehem is much lower than many U.S. cities.

Yet many still associated Bethlehem with terrorism. Since the economy has traditionally been based around tourism, this has had a devastating effect. Christian Palestinians are looking to other Christians around the world for support, but say they're not getting much of an answer.

"American churches have to… reflect on why they neglected the Palestinians and the Palestinian Christians," says Rifat Kassis, who co-authored the Kairos document, a call to support Palestinian Christians modeled after the South African document of the same name. The Palestinian version was signed by over 3,000 people, most of them local Christians. Kassis and his co-authors wanted to address many of the misconceptions they believe outsiders have about their community.

"Unfortunately it is as if we were lately rediscovered," Kassis say. "And many would see us only within the context of Islamic relations which is, in general, an insult for us." He is calling attention to the tendency to use Palestinian Christians as a political pawn against Palestinian Muslims. "It's an insult because for the past 1,500 years we've lived together," he says.

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An Italian team has recently restored the mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, removing a layer of soot and grime. The intricate mosaics pictured here are made of gold and silver leaf with mother of pearl. Cate Malek/GroundTruth

Consider, for example, Faith Goldy, who works for the right-wing Canadian news site, Rebel Media. She streamed a video in March to the site's more than 600,000 followers in which she expressed shock that she could hear the Muslim call to prayer in Bethlehem. "Bethlehem's Christian population has been ethnically cleansed," the video proclaims over footage of Muslims praying in Nativity Square. "Right across the square from the Church of the Nativity is a towering mosque."

Goldy's views are extreme, but her popularity trades on a common assumption, that Christianity and Islam are somehow inherently opposed. Clearly there is a history of conflict between the two faiths dating from the violence of the Crusades to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which has brutalized religious minorities including Christians, but there is also a long history of communion and respect between the two faiths.

Extremist views ignore that history, and they ignore the living proof of Palestinian Christians and Muslims who live together in harmony today.

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Catholic clergy walk during a procession outside the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24, 2007. eidi Levine/GroundTruth

They also ignore residents like A'abla, who still lives in the Church of the Nativity and has the key to its back door, carrying on a long tradition of Muslims protecting their Christian neighbors.

Cate Malek is an Overseas Press Club Foundation reporting fellow working with The GroundTruth Project.