Though Christmas celebrations in Israel are growing more robust as Christian pilgrims flock to city squares and churches, at least one Christian leader in the country says Bethlehem is becoming increasingly closed off – and that Jesus himself wouldn’t be able to get in if he were alive today.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, priest of Bethlehem’s Beit Jala parish, cites the increase of Jewish settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a potentially unassailable obstacle – one so impenetrable, not even Jesus could break through.
“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,'' Shomali told Sydney Morning Herald. ''He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission - or to have been tourists.”
''This really is the big problem for Palestinians in Bethlehem: what will happen when they close us off completely?'' he added.
Among the most intrusive settlements is Har Homa – a behemoth community of nearly 20,000 people. It’s built on the land Christian leaders believe is where angels told the shepherds about Jesus’ birth.
The settlement, and an additional community in the works, prevents East Jerusalem Palestinians from entering Jerusalem, or Bethlehem, without an Israeli tourist permit. Leaders in the region, including Shomali, fear that the settlements may permanently alter the geographic landscape of the region.
The settlement adds to fears the Arab Christians – who comprise 2 percent of the Israeli population – may be a rarity in the country in coming years.
''When I look down my church register, many of the historic family names from the area have already gone,” Shomali said. ''In 20 years, I think we will have no more Christians in Bethlehem.”
Christmas celebrations are hardly on the verge of extinction in other Israeli cities. A burgeoning Christian community comprised mostly of Filipino laborers and African pilgrims is celebrating the holiday in public spaces and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and Nazareth.
Christmas trees and festive songs abound from bus stations, storefronts and churches that are tucked under apartment buildings and into street corners.
In a taped address to Christians released earlier the week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged pilgrims and tourists to visit Israel during the Christmas season – and celebrate openly.
“In a region where Christians are routinely persecuted and where there is little tolerance for the faith of others, Israel safeguards the holy places of the great religions and ensures freedom of worship for all,” Netanyahu said before listing sites in Israel that Christian tourists might find appealing.