Bethlehem – the place known throughout the globe as the birthplace of Jesus is a world apart from the “little town” featured in Nativity plays taking place across the country this Christmas.
The “House of Bread” as it is known in Hebrew, or “City of David” according to Luke’s Gospel, provided safe and secure accommodation for the birth of Jesus. Yet the arrival of the Prince of Peace took place in an uncertain and politically divisive climate.
Today, Bethlehem remains the focus of the Christmas story, however now controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), followers of Jesus are decreasing in number and anti-Christian persecution is rising. According to Open Doors, 1% of the Palestinian Territories population is Christian, with Islamic extremism being the main source of the decline and Muslim-background converts facing the most severe persecution.
In 1995 the Christian population of Bethlehem was 20,000, when Israel gave the PA control of the city. Today there are approximately 7,500 Christians. In December 2015, Christian Arab Father Gabriel Naddaf explained some of the reasons for this decline:
“While some contribute the decline to a range of factors, others are now openly speaking of Muslim intimidation towards the Christian community, including land theft, discrimination in public sector employment, abuse, and economic hardships.”
“While Palestinians being portrayed as victims, even when they commit acts of violence or terrorism, little attention is given to the Christian community who has refused to engage in such acts. It seems that terrorism is only rewarded by the media, not kindness and forgiveness.”
Pressure upon the Christian community is felt significantly during the time when many Christians celebrate Christmas. Let’s take celebrations in 2015 as an example:
In the lead-up to Christmas last year, the PA asked the municipality of Bethlehem not to set off fireworks and limit festive lights and decorations. Christians were apparently discouraged to celebrate while “Palestinians were being killed” by Israelis – when in fact this was at the height of last year’s Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israelis. But the real reason, it turned out, was due to threats by Islamic extremists to target Christians and their holy sites. Reports say that Palestinian security forces arrested 16 men affiliated with Islamic State or other jihadi groups, during the festive period.
On Christmas Day itself, Muslim Palestinians hurled stones at the car of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, as he travelled to Bethlehem. Even before this attack, Palestinian Muslims set fire to a Christmas tree in the village of Al-Zababdeh. Further to this, Palestinian protesters were disguising themselves in Santa Claus costumes and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers while reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar”. The Western media, however, failed to associate these actions in any way to Islamic radicalism. Christians across the Middle East are being persecuted to great extremes, yet when it comes to the Palestinian Territories it continues to follow the narrative that Israel alone is only to blame for the predicament of Christians living there.
Blaming Israel is sadly endemic not only in our media but in many churches in the West. In fact there is an entire movement among pro-Palestinian Christians that has joined hands with Islam for the purpose of delegitimising, isolating and destroying Israel with a seditious version of Replacement Theology. Also known as Palestinian Liberation Theology, the rise of this teaching perpetuates the narrative that Jesus was not a Jew, but a Palestinian and that Israel has no historical or theological right to exist. This absurd assertion is made despite the fact that the Bible identifies Jesus as a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother, who, as a Jew, lived in Judea and celebrated Jewish festivals annually in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire only changed the name of “Judea” to “Palestina” one hundred years after Jesus’s death.
It portrays Jesus as the first Palestinian martyr and first Palestinian refugee. In other words, just as first century Jews “persecuted Jesus”, the Jewish State now “persecutes Palestinians”, the purported descendants of Jesus. Despite how outrageous this teaching might seem to those that know their Bible, it is becoming increasingly popular among some Christians. Upon hearing about the reported victimisation and suffering of fellow believers in the Palestinian territories, many of these Christians are moved to support the Palestinian cause – especially those living in the birthplace of Jesus. And the anti-Israel movement is taking full advantage of these blatant anti-Semitic lies.
Last year Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, gave this Christmas message with almost echoes of Yasser Arafat:
“We celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Palestinian messenger of love, justice and peace, which has guided millions from the moment that his message came out from a small grotto in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. His message resonates among all of those who are seeking justice and among our people who have been the guardians of the holy sites for generations. Jesus’ message resonates in our prayers for our people in our capital Jerusalem, who continue to resist the Israeli attempts to turn the city into an exclusive Jewish place.”
The theme of the Christmas Eve celebration in Judea and Samaria, also referred to as the West Bank, was “All I Want for Christmas is Justice”. Mahmoud Al-Habbash, the Supreme Sharia Judge and Mahmoud Abbas’ Adviser on Religious and Islamic Affairs joined the festivities:
“Christmas is also a Palestinian holiday, because Jesus, peace be upon him, was Palestinian. He was born in Palestine; lived and was sent [as prophet] to Palestine. Therefore, Christmas has a special Palestinian flavour.’”
And if you think this Palestinian flavour of Christmas would never trickle down to the local church in the UK – think again.
Let’s take the United Reformed Church (UK) Christmas worship resource, for example. One of its calls to worship has the following verse:
“Come let’s worship God
Let’s be filled with awe, wonder and that profound grace
Seen in Jesus, the Palestinian carpenter.
The Holy Child.”
Christian charity Amos Trust has published their astonishing Children’s Christmas Activity Pack for 2016. In their retelling of the Nativity story, it includes replacing the tree with the “separation wall” (The security barrier used by Israel to protect itself from terrorists). It tells of the Magi who cannot visit the birthplace of Jesus because, coming from the East, they are on the other side of the wall; the shepherds are prevented by neighbouring settlements, and Mary and Joseph, who are Jews coming from the direction of Jerusalem, have to go through the “massive check-point” to get to Bethlehem.
And a glance at one of the downloads available on the popular and otherwise very good All Age Worship Resources website incorrectly refers to the region as “1st century Palestine”.
For Christians, it is important to accurately portray the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus and we must be aware of the deceptive narrative that aims to delegitimise and demonise Israel. In doing so we have a wonderful opportunity to stand with Israel and the Jewish people. Meanwhile, let us also pray for persecuted Christians living in the Palestinian territories and throughout the Middle East, especially during this season of “peace and goodwill to all mankind”.