Christmas always seems to be rammed down our throats earlier than feels decent with a sensory overload of decorations and shop music in early November. I got my own early Christmas experience this year with a trip to Bethlehem last month.
And while our supermarkets were being decked out in tinsel, Jesus’ homeland was again in the news as bullets and shells rained down on Gaza and Israel. For a country so fondly imagined on the front of Christmas cards and in carols as quiet and peaceful, Israel and particularly Palestine, is a place of real misery and suffering.
During my visit I spent time at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the alleged site of Jesus’ birth, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where his empty tomb now resides. Tourists from around the world flock to both sites in their millions every year, to queue up and touch the stones where Jesus was supposedly born and killed (but even my tour guide in Bethlehem admitted the big silver star on the floor marking ‘the spot’ where Mary gave birth had been picked at random).
A couple of days before joining the throngs of tourists, I spent the day in another part of the West Bank – a village called Beit Fajjar, 17 miles from Bethlehem. I was there with a partner organisation of Christian Aid, Physicians for Human Rights (PHRI) – a group of Israeli medics which speaks out against the occupation of Palestine. As well as lobbying their own government to provide better medical services to Palestinians they also run a mobile clinic offering medical services to people unable to get the kind of treatment and care available to citizens of Israel.
The clinic co-ordinator told me he gets calls from 50 villages a week asking for his volunteers to visit them. “There is such a great need. If we had 10 Saturdays a month we’d go.”
The clinic also provides a unique opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to meet each other in peaceful circumstances. As one PHRI volunteer, Catholic nun Sister Aziza, explained: “The mobile clinic is a like a bridge. We have Jews and Muslims being brought together. I am usually one of the only Christians here and it is very special to be among this community. It is a beautiful event.”
The dusty streets and isolated people of Beit Fajjar feel a world away from the bright lights and wealthy tourist spots of modern-day Jerusalem. As we watched people coming for medical attention – a mirror of those that sought Jesus’ healing in this same land – I wondered where Jesus would be if he was here today. On the tourist trail seeing the sights? Or spending time with the poor and needy only a few miles away?
Sister Aziza said: “Christians from abroad come and visit the holy places, the biblical lands of their roots and go back home but don’t see what is happening here. Their eyes are blind to the occupation. They need to open their eyes. They travel from Jerusalem to Jericho and see Bedouin and Palestinians who cannot even get permission to build even a small house. We need people to ask why this is.
“Many Palestinian Christians can’t even get permission to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We need to pray for peace in Palestine. If we don’t pray for peace, we cannot change. I urge the Christian community across the world to pray for us.”
So as we are increasingly surrounded by the trappings of Christmas over the next few weeks, please take a minute to think about the plight of those living in the land of Jesus today.
For more information about the work of Physicians for Human Rights visit their website.
Image: Christian Aid/Sarah Malian