For most people in the West, Bethlehem is most likely to be mentioned at this time of year in the context of a nativity play.
But, in December 2017, the site of Jesus’ birth in the occupied West Bank is a center of opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
“We will receive the U.S. vice president with shoes and more,” declared Mohammed Lahham of the Fatah Revolutionary Council on the proposed visit of Mike Pence to the town.
In Arab culture shoes can be used to show that a visiter is not welcome, and the throwing of footwear has previously been used in the region to reject U.S. politicians. In 2008, Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi made headlines worldwide when he threw shoes at then U.S. President George Bush.
Christian Palestinians had held a protest outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem following the service there on Sunday, the Palestinian News Network reported.
Demonstrators strongly rejected Trump’s move on nearby Jerusalem, emphasizing that any representative of his administration was not welcome in their town.
Speaking on behalf of Christian institutions in Bethlehem, George Zeina said that considering Jerusalem the capital of Israel harms both Christians and Muslims.
Just as for Jews and Muslims, the "holy city" holds considerable significance for Christians. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is reputed to contain the site of Jesus’ tomb.
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While as much opposed to the Israeli occupation and violations of their rights as their Muslim neighbors, Palestinian Christians have often been absent from Western understanding of the conflict.
Every time violence breaks out in the Holy Land, some people are shocked to see the existence of Palestinian Christians.....Yes, Palestine was home to Arab, Armenian, and Syriac Christians.— Leith Abou Fadel (@leithfadel) December 9, 2017
According to Newsweek, Christians make up 12 percent of Bethlehem’s population, down from 80 percent just 50 years ago. Overall in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank they represent 2 percent, as opposed to 5 percent in the 1970s the same report suggested.
A combination of factors are behind the decline, including the economic and practical difficulties of living under occupation.
While a minority, Palestinian Christians continue both to face oppression and resist it.
Seriously! I am a Christian Palestinian--and @realDonaldTrump threw every Palestinian Christian under the bus!— FeastInTheMiddleEast (@BlancheMedia) December 9, 2017
For instance, land belonging to Christian and Muslim Palestinians has been seized around Bethlehem, and in neighboring majority-Christian Beit Sahour, for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements.
Farmers have been cut off from cultivating their land both by settlers and by the looming separation wall.
My Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem are denied entry to our holy sites in Jerusalem every year due to the Israeli occupation. Don't tell me that our churches are better off under Jewish rule. What kind of "freedom of worship" do you call this?— (@falasteeniyeh) December 8, 2017
Yet Western media outlets often erase Christian Palestinians from the narrative.
@Partisangirl claimed on Twitter that The Daily Mail had changed a headline to “conceal the feelings of Palestinian Christians.”
Protesters had gathered in Bethlehem on Tuesday night following the news that Trump would announced the embassy change to declare “Jerusalem, Palestine's heart, is not up to negotiations.”
In a sad irony, multiple commentators have emphasized that Trump’s announcement was an attempt to appeal to his evangelical Christian voter base at home.
In evangelical world, President Trump has delivered time and time again. Now, with the moves regarding the embassy/Jerusalem he further cements himself as one who is on his way to going down as the most “evangelical friendly” president ever. @POTUS @realDonaldTrump @VP @CBNNews pic.twitter.com/n0jRnXgEM7— David Brody (@TheBrodyFile) December 6, 2017
82 percent of the 50 million evangelical Christians in the U.S. believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people, as opposed to just 40 percent of American Jews.
By supporting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, however, those evangelicals disregard the rights of the Christian population that continues to live in “the Holy Land.”
Bethlehem’s Christians are not alone in refusing to meet with Pence in his planned visit to the region later this month. Egypt’s Coptic pope on Saturday cancelled a meeting with the U.S. vice president over Jerusalem.
"We pray for everyone to have wisdom and rationality in addressing issues that affect the peace of the Middle East peoples," the Coptic Church said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he too will not host Pence “because the United States, in its decisions on Jerusalem, crossed red lines.”
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