December 2012 Archives


Indeed the occupation of the ‘Little Town of Bethelem’ is an indictment against the Western church. Why is it that most Western Christians treat the suffering of our sisters and brothers in Bethlehem with such callous indifference? Father Dave


Christmas in Bethlehem: Image and Reality, 2012

by Philip Farah

Co-founder, Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace

If you have a miniature manger in your home today, or if you’ve heard a piece of music in the mall with “Bethlehem” in it, I — as a Palestinian Christian in whose life Bethlehem has played a big role — have a favor to ask you: Please go to your computer and do a search using these words: “Bethlehem Christmas wall.” Check out some of the articles and the images. If your curiosity is piqued, go a bit further and check out the images for “al Masara village,” or “al Walaja village,” two tiny villages near Bethlehem. I think this is an important exercise for anyone who has formed a mental image of the Little Town of Bethlehem during this holiday season.

Today, Bethlehem and the surrounding areas still have some of the holiest churches of Christianity, and they still vibrate with the prayers and celebrations of Palestinian Christians. But the Palestinians of Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims alike, are a people besieged. For Bethlehem today is surrounded by a host of physical barriers, including several miles of a concrete wall that is over 20 feet high, built by the Israeli occupation authorities.

This wall — deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004 — separates the Palestinians of the Bethlehem area from huge swaths of their land. Much of that land has been taken from them to build Jewish-only settlements that are also illegal under international law. These Jewish settlements surround the Palestinian communities of the Bethlehem area, hemming them into a limited geographic area, like a tiny Bantustan, isolating them from occupied East Jerusalem, the economic, cultural, and spiritual heart of Palestinian life. Just this week, the Israeli government announced that it had approved plans for new construction in the nascent settlement of Givat Hamatos, which lies between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a move swiftly condemned by European diplomats as a “game changer” that could end the possibility of creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

I was born and raised in East Jerusalem. For many years before I emigrated to the U.S., I accompanied my father, a devout Christian, on his annual walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Back in the late 1930s, he made a vow to make the five-mile journey by foot every New Year’s Eve. If I were to do the same thing today, I would be confronted by a wall that’s higher than, and as ugly as, the Berlin Wall, just a few minutes after departing. For the people of Bethlehem, the wall is far worse, because few of them are allowed beyond it to visit their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem.

The images that you’ll see from my suggested web search are the reality of Bethlehem today. In your search, you might also see images of Palestinians involved in a non-violent struggle against the demeaning and pauperizing conditions of Israel’s 45-year-old military occupation and colonization of their land. The leaders of the non-violent Palestinian resistance against the wall in the villages of Masara and Walaja will often mention Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their discourse. These two leaders practiced very confrontational resistance, not the passive resistance that is associated with Jesus. But Gandhi and MLK never preached hatred against their oppressors, and today, the people of Bethlehem, Masara and Walaja welcome Israeli Jews who stand shoulder to shoulder with them in opposing the injustices of the occupation.

The reality of Bethlehem today has a great deal more to do with the message of the man that Christians refer to as the “Prince of Peace” than the Disney-like images of Bethlehem we see in our shopping malls. Jesus actually lived under an oppressive Roman occupation of his country. He identified the most with the poor and oppressed, and he preached equality between Jews — his own people, Samaritans and Gentiles. During this Christmas season, spare a thought and a prayer for Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, who continue to struggle against injustice and oppression in the name of freedom, equality, and peace.


Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal was the 13th Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem – a diocese that includes Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. He is also a personal friend of mine.

As ever, this great campaigner for peace urges us to commit ourselves to the task of reconciliation and peace in the year ahead. Father Dave

Bishop Riah (right) with me and Sheikh Mansour in 2006

Bishop Riah (right) with me and Sheikh Mansour in 2006

Dearest Friends, the Children of Light,

The time has come for hearts to be targeted and brains to be triggered.   A loaded gun is pointed at our orbiting star.  Wake up dear companion comrades from a long sleepy coma.  How much harm has the human race inflicted on each other, how violently, rather instantaneously, and perhaps irreversibly, have we injured the universe entrusted to us.

Some prophesize, others predict.  Some approve, others contradict.    Yet, our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic arena.   It is the only world known so far to harbor life.

“I implore you, I beg you, and I order you: stop the repression” said Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to his people.  Let us join hands to stop the crimes all around.  Instruments of destruction, like cannibals, feed on rivers of blood.  Tanks, like carnivores, swallow up human bodies both dead and alive.  Submarine sharks and F16 fighter eagle jets, fire hatred from high above and from deep below.  Spy satellites are indeed smart…!!

Half dead and half alive should not be our choice.  The question of birth remains as mysterious as that of death.   The first is joyous; the second sorrowful.   Behold, not even the most distinguished geniuses in the history of mankind remember being born!    Most of us mythologize about it.  Dates mark our entry and departure to and from the world’s gateway.  Every birth is a miracle.  Every birth is a resurrection.  When the sun sets, it dies only to rise again.

May the Prince of Peace; the sun/Son of Truth, of Justice and of Life rise on the horizon of all nations.  May we witness the Omega of all evil and celebrate the Alpha of love, reconciliation and tranquility through 2013.

Wishing you a joyous Christmas and a most blessed New Year.

+Bishop Riah

13th Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem

Christmas 2012


We are grateful to The Institute for Middle East Understanding for this comprehensive list of facts and figures on Christians in the Holy Land. The facts speak for themselves. Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the Israeli government continues to push forward with its program of ethnic cleansing!



  • Today, there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

  • The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox, with smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox, and several other Protestant denominations.

  • There are no official figures on the number of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but according to the Lutheran ecumenical institution the Diyar Consortium there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They are concentrated mainly in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem.

  • Christians comprise roughly 2% of the population of the West Bank, while Gaza’s estimated 3,000 Christians account for less than 1% of the coastal enclave’s population. While Gaza’s Christian population has remained steady in recent years, the number of Christians in the West Bank has continued to dwindle as many emigrate as a result of the difficulties of living under Israeli military occupation. Lower birthrates for Christians have also contributed to their shrinking percentage of the population.

  • According to Israeli government figures, as of 2009 there were about 154,000 Christian citizens of Israel, or about 2.1% of the population. Of those, approximately 80% are Palestinian Arabs, including 44,000 Roman Catholics, while the rest are non-Arab immigrants, mostly spouses of Jews who came from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.


  • The number of violent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians, including Christians, and their property has risen by about 150% each year since 2008, with 154 attacks in the first half of 2012, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

  • In recent years, settlers have begun so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions that displease them, such as the dismantling of settlement “outposts” (nascent settlements built without official approval from Israeli authorities). Often, such attacks take the form of vandalism and desecration of Muslim and Christian holy sites, including a string of arson attacks against mosques in the West Bank and Israel.

  • In December 2012, Jewish extremists vandalized the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem for the second time, painting “Death to Christianity,” “Jesus, son of a whore,” and “price tag” on its walls and slashing tires on cars in its parking lot.

  • In October 2012, the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem was vandalized, its door damaged and garbage dumped in its entrance. It was at least the third act of vandalism against a Christian holy site in the previous five weeks. A week before the Romanian Church was attacked, vandals spray-painted “Jesus is a bastard” and “price tag” on the Franciscan convent on Mount Zion.

  • In September 2012, attackers set fire to the door of the Latrun Monastery in Jerusalem. Believed to be a “price tag” attack, the arson took place a week after the Israeli government evacuated settlers from the Migron settlement “outpost” in the West Bank.

  • In February 2012, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that over the previous two months, vandals had attacked two churches and a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. In the attacks on the churches, the perpetrators spray-painted “Jesus is dead,” “Death to Christianity,” and “Mary was a prostitute” on the walls. One of the churches, the Narkis Street Baptist Congregation in Jerusalem, was previously the target of arson attacks in 2007 and 1982.

  • In November 2011, Haaretz reported that ultra-Orthodox Jews were cursing and spitting at Christian clergy in the streets of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem “as a matter of routine.” The chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stated: “It happens a lot. You walk down the street and suddenly they spit at you for no reason.” A student at the city’s Armenian Seminary complained that he was subjected to insults and spitting from ultra-Orthodox men on a daily basis, stating: “When I see an ultra-Orthodox man coming toward me in the street, I always ask myself if he will spit at me.” According to a separate Haaretz article published in February 2012, spitting incidents were so prevalent that some priests had stopped visiting certain parts of the Old City.

  • In June 2012, Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israeli army, which as an occupying military force is ultimately responsible for security in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, said that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t really interested in stopping the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, stating: If we wanted, we could catch them and when we want to, we will.”

  • In March 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported that senior European Union officials had drafted a confidential report concluding that Jewish settlers are engaged in a systematic and growing campaign of violence against Palestinians and that “settler violence enjoys the tacit support of the state of Israel.”


  • Christian Palestinians who are citizens of Israel suffer from the same widespread official and unofficial discrimination that other non-Jews do, in everything from land ownership and housing to employment and family reunification rights.

  • There are more than 30 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, rendering them second- or third-class citizens in their own homeland.

  • 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Christians, face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.

  • In November 2010, the influential chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, issued a ruling forbidding Jews from renting property to Gentiles. The following month, some 50 other municipal chief rabbis, also on the government payroll, signed a letter supporting Eliyahu and his decree. One of the signatories, Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, head of the Ashdod Yeshiva religious school, stated, “Racism originated in the Torah… The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel.”

  • In October 2010, the Knesset approved a bill allowing smaller Israeli towns to reject residents who do not suit “the community’s fundamental outlook” based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status. Human rights groupscriticized the move as an attempt to allow Jewish towns to keep Arabs and other non-Jews out.

  • The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2009 noted, “While well-known [religious] sites have de facto protection as a result of their international importance, many Muslim and Christian sites are neglected, inaccessible, or threatened by property developers and municipalities.”

  • In the occupied territories, Palestinian Christians suffer from the same restrictions, including on movement, applied to all Palestinians living under Israel’s 45-year-old military rule. These restrictions do not apply to the more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

  • According to the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2007: “The Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, when granting permits for home building and civic services.”


  • Although Israeli officials frequently claim that Palestinian Christians and Muslims have free access to their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem and other areas under Israeli control, in reality Israeli restrictions make it difficult or impossible for most Palestinians in the occupied territories to worship freely.

  • Since 1993, Palestinians living in the in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have been forbidden by Israel to enter occupied East Jerusalem without a difficult to obtain permit. As a result, millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza are prevented from accessing their holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.

  • In April 2011, 15,000 Christian Palestinians applied for a permit to enter occupied East Jerusalem to worship at Old City holy sites for Easter, but Israel only granted approximately 2,500 of them.

  • According to the US State Department 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom, published in July 2012:

‘Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

‘Reports of Christian clergy, nuns, and other religious workers unable to secure residency or work permits increased during the year. Christian advocates claimed that the difficulty of obtaining permits gradually worsened in the last 10 years. Israeli authorities continued to limit visas for Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating clergy travel, particularly to areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem. This disrupted their work and caused financial difficulties for their sponsoring religious organizations.

‘Separately Israel generally prohibited entry into Gaza by Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.

‘The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.’


  • There are currently 22 Israeli settlements built on land belonging to Bethlehem, the city where Christians believe Jesus was born, including Nokdim, where recently resigned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives. They surround the city and, along with Israel’s wall, isolate it from Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

  • In and around Bethlehem there are some 32 physical barriers to Palestinian movement erected by Israel, including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates. As with other Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank, Israeli Jews are allowed to bypass them freely.

  • Historically, Jerusalem has been the religious, economic, and cultural center of Palestinian life in the West Bank. Since occupying and illegally annexing the eastern half of the city in 1967, Israel has attempted to separate and isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank by building a ring of settlements around its outskirts. As in the case of Bethlehem, this ring of settlements has been reinforced by the wall Israel is constructing, which also separates Israeli settlements in and near East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

  • According to the 2009 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report: “Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem.”

  • According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem: “Since East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, the government of Israel’s primary goal in Jerusalem has been to create a demographic and geographic situation that will thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty over the city. To achieve this goal, the government has been taking actions to increase the number of Jews, and reduce the number of Palestinians, living in the city.”

  • In December 2012, the Israeli government announced that it had advanced plans for settlement construction in the so-called E-1 corridor of East Jerusalem, prompting international condemnation, including from the United States, which has long-pressured Israel not to build in E-1. If completed, Israel’s plans for E-1 would effectively sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and cement the division of the West Bank into separate cantons, making the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories all but impossible.

(See here for a map of Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem and the E-1 plan. See here for a map of settlements surrounding Bethlehem.)


It is hard to think of the fir tree as being especially ‘Christian’. I believe it goes back to St Boniface (in the 8th century) who substituted the small fir tree, with its evergreen pins symbolising eternal life, for the traditional pagan oak. Even so, few people today would be aware of any such symbolism.  It seems that the issue is really the observance of the holiday itself, and it’s hard to imagine that the tourist trade in Israel will not suffer if its hotels refuse to acknowledge the very occurrence of Christmas and New Year!

Father Dave

ban on Christmas tree


December 24, 2012  

The terror lurking in a Christmas tree  

Israel tries to ban non-Jewish celebrations  

By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth  

Israel’s large Palestinian minority is often spoken of in terms of the threat it poses to the Jewish majority.  

Palestinian citizens’ reproductive rate constitutes a “demographic time bomb”, while their main political programme – Israel’s reform into “a state of all its citizens” – is proof for most Israeli Jews that their compatriots are really a “fifth column”.  

But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?  

This issue first came to public attention two years ago when it was revealed that Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, had banned Christmas trees from all public buildings in his northern Israeli city.  

“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish town and all its symbols are Jewish,” Gapso said. “As long as I hold office, no non-Jewish symbol will be presented in the city.”  

The decision reflected in part his concern that Upper Nazareth, built in the 1950s as the centrepiece of the Israeli government’s “Judaization of the Galilee” programme, was failing dismally in its mission.  

Far from “swallowing up” the historic Palestinian city of Nazareth next door, as officials had intended, Upper Nazareth became over time a magnet for wealthier Nazarenes who could no longer find a place to build a home in their own city. That was because almost all Nazareth’s available green space had been confiscated for the benefit of Upper Nazareth.  

Instead Nazarenes, many of them Palestinian Christians, have been buying homes in Upper Nazareth from Jews – often immigrants from the former Soviet Union – desperate to leave the Arab-dominated Galilee and head to the country’s centre, to be nearer Tel Aviv.  

The exodus of Jews and influx of Palestinians have led the government to secretly designate Upper Nazareth as a “mixed city”, much to the embarrassment of Gapso. The mayor is a stalwart ally of far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman and regularly expresses virulently anti-Arab views, including recently calling Nazarenes “Israel-hating residents whose place is in Gaza” and their city “a nest of terror in the heart of the Galilee”. Although neither Gapso nor the government has published census figures to clarify the city’s current demographic balance, most estimates suggest that at least a fifth of Upper Nazareth’s residents are Palestinian. The city’s council chamber also now includes Palestinian representatives.  

Christmas trees “offensive to Jewish eyes”

But Gapso is not alone in his trenchant opposition to making even the most cursory nod towards multiculturalism. The city’s chief rabbi, Isaiah Herzl, has refused to countenance a single Christmas tree in Upper Nazareth, arguing that it would be “offensive to Jewish eyes”.  

That view, it seems, reflects the official position of the country’s rabbinate. In so far as they are able, the rabbis have sought to ban Christmas celebrations in public buildings, including in the hundreds of hotels across the country.  

A recent report in the Haaretz newspaper, on an Israeli Jew who grows Christmas trees commercially, noted in passing: “Hotels – under threat of losing kashrut certificates – are prohibited by the rabbinate from decking their halls in boughs of holly or, heaven forbid, putting up even the smallest of small sparkly Christmas tree in the corner of the lobby.”  

In other words, the rabbinate has been quietly terrorizing Israeli hotel owners into ignoring Christmas by threatening to use its powers to put them out of business. Denying a hotel its kashrut (kosher) certificate would lose it most of its Israeli and foreign Jewish clientele.  

Few mayors or rabbis find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to go public with their views on the dangers of Christmas decorations. In Israel, segregation between Jews and Palestinians is almost complete. Even most of the handful of mixed cities are really Jewish cities with slum-like ghettoes of Palestinians living on the periphery.  

Apart from Upper Nazareth, the only other “mixed” place where Palestinian Christians are to be found in significant numbers is Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Haifa is often referred to as Israel’s most multicultural and tolerant city, a title for which it faces very little competition.  

Non-Jewish New Year celebrations “seriously forbidden”

But the image hides a dirtier reality. A recent letter from Haifa’s rabbinate came to light in which the city’s hotels and events halls were reminded that they must not host New Year’s parties at the end of this month (the Jewish New Year happens at a different time of year). The hotels and halls were warned that they would be denied their kashrut licences if they did so.  

“It is a seriously forbidden to hold any event at the end of the calendar year that is connected with or displays anything from the non-Jewish festivals,” the letter states.  

After the letter was publicized on Facebook, Haifa’s mayor, Yona Yahav, moved into damage limitation mode, overruling the city’s rabbinical council on 23 December and insisting that parties would be allowed to go ahead. Whether Yahav has the power to enforce his decision on the notoriously independent-minded rabbinical authorities is still uncertain.  

But what is clear is that there is plenty of religious intolerance verging on hatred being quietly exercised against non-Jews, mostly behind the scenes so as not to disturb Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” image or outrage the millions of Christian tourists and pilgrims who visit Israel each year.


Twal’s speech recognises that the birth of the Palestinian state is one of deep spiritual significance as well as a political victory!

The following article is an extract.

Archbishop Fouad Twal

Archbishop Fouad Twal


Roman Catholic cleric celebrates Palestinian state

By DALIA NAMMARI | Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land celebrated the United Nations’ recent recognition of a Palestinian state in his annual pre-Christmas homily on Monday, saying that while the road to actual freedom from Israeli occupation remains long, the Palestinian homeland has been born.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal told followers at the patriarchate’s headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City that this year’s festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.”

“The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort,” added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan.

From Jerusalem, he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not really changed since the U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Hundreds of people were on hand to greet Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.

A lavishly decorated 55-foot (25-meter) fir tree with a nativity scene at its foot dominated the plaza. Festivities were to culminate with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.

“It’s a special feeling to be here, it’s an encounter with my soul and God,” said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.

Read the full article here:…