For a shrinking group of Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem is still a Promised Land

BETHLEHEM — Salwa Musallam gets to visit the site where Jesus was born nearly every day. As a tour guide with a local nonprofit, she ushers groups through the so-called Door of Humility, using her booming voice to implore visitors to bend at the waist in order to enter the sacred space within the Church of the Nativity. She knows every historic detail related to the church and doles out tidbits of information as her tours move through the multi-room compound. She even stops to explain that Jesus was born in a cave and not a stable, as is commonly thought.

“You are lucky to be going in the birthplace of Christ,” she declares, later adding that it’s important to keep quiet while at the church. It is a lesson she apparently has not learned. “I’m known here as a troublemaker. As soon as someone hears a group laugh, they know it’s me,” she tells her audience. “They’ll kick me out of the Church. One Greek priest, he can hear me even if I whisper,” she adds, jokingly.

With pitch-black hair, lined eyes, and sunglasses perched on top of her head, Musallam stands out from other guides. At 57 years old, her background reads like the passport stamps of a world traveler. She is Palestinian, Arab, Christian, North American and Latin American. She was born in Colombia and moved to Bethlehem when she was six years old. For a while, she and her husband and their four daughters lived in Michigan before deciding to move back to Bethlehem.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric).

Musallam’s family story is very different than that of most Palestinian Christians. While many of them want desperately to leave places like Bethlehem, her family left several times but kept coming back to Palestine. Her story is a reminder that for many Palestinians, even those with options, Bethlehem continues to be a Promised Land, even if it comes with troubles.

The Holy Land’s Palestinian Christian population is a small minority in the region. Palestinian Christians comprise only a tiny fraction of the population but made up around 10 percent of the overall Palestinian population at the beginning of this century, according to Bishop Hanna Kildani, the Latin patriarch for Nazareth.

In fact, a new census estimate by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statics stated last month that out of more than 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, only around one percent are Christian. The main reason for the recent drop is attributed to foreign migration – many Palestinian Christians continue to emigrate out of the country.

“We have this problem of immigration. Many Christians and Muslims can’t find housing, work, business so we are moving out of the Holy Land,” said Kildani, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Christianity in Jordan and Palestine.

Top reasons for emigration among Palestinian Christians include economic and political difficulties, as well as social and religious reasons, according to a recent study by Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem. The study also found that nearly a quarter of Palestinian Christians had family members who have emigrated in the past year and that more than 70 percent did so for economic reasons.

This migratory trend is not new. Financial ambitions and escaping poverty and malady were some of the reasons Palestinian Christians left the Ottoman empire at the turn of the 20th century, wrote Pastor Mitri Raheb, founder of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, in the recent report. Many settled in New York, while others continued on to places like Brazil and Chile.

Musallam’s father was among those who left. Around 1913, he moved to Barranquilla, Colombia, where some of his other family members were already residing, and took a job selling pants door-to-door.

He settled in Colombia and married Musallam’s mother, ultimately raising a family there. But his daughter retained her Palestinian heritage and married a man from Palestine. At first, she and her husband lived in Michigan but then moved to Bethlehem.

“There is a strong loyalty towards being Palestinian and the land their forefathers grew up in,” said Randa Kayyali, who has written a book on Arab-Americans and has done research on Palestinian Christians.

Today, Musallam’s job as a tour guide with the Holy Land Trust – where one of her daughters also works – keeps her in tune with the religious history of the land. In fact, it was her daughter who recommended her for the job due to her ability to speak many languages, including English, Spanish, French, Hebrew and, of course, Arabic.

But while Musallam came back, most Palestinians want to leave. They have many reasons. Constraints, arbitrary arrests, discriminatory policies and confiscation of land add to a sense of hopelessness and put Christian Palestinians in despairing situations “where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves,” stated the report by Dar al-Kalima. Many Palestinians Christians, therefore, set their sights to Europe, the U.S. and Canada to find refuge.

“Christians are being heavily impacted by the occupation and their livelihoods are being drastically reduced,” said Kayyali, the researcher. “So, if you had the opportunity to go somewhere else, maybe you would take it,” she said, adding that there are Christians in other areas of the world and many might feel that they won’t be persecuted in those places.

More people are leaving the country than are returning, said Marc Frings, head of the Ramallah office for Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation. “What I’m observing is that Christians here are becoming more aware of their minority status even though it’s not new. They’ve been a minority ever since Islam conquered the region. But now they don’t feel protected and are seriously afraid.”

Sami Awad, founder of the Holy Land Trust non-profit and Musallam’s employer, echoed that sentiment, arguing that many Palestinians feel a sense of resignation. “This feeling that Palestinians have is complete hopeless, apathy and that nothing works – diplomacy, violence and non-violence,” he said.

Though Western media rarely explores the plight of Palestinian Christians, Musallam’s situation is different – as a tour guide, she gets to recount her story to any willing listener during her daily tours of the church.

Musallam emigrated to the United States with her husband while he worked as a journalist in Ann Arbor. She still holds American citizenship. But she regrets moving back to Bethlehem. “I miss the States,” she said. “I cried when my husband wanted to come home. I said ‘you’ll regret it,’ and he did,” she added. “As a good wife, for the last 30 years, I’ve been telling him ‘I told you so,’” she said jokingly.

Many of Musallam’s relatives and friends didn’t understand her family’s decision to move back to Bethlehem. “They think me and my family are crazy first when we came back,” she said. “Life is good here, it’s not boring. But, it’s kind of hard.”

Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, agreed that there are challenges to living in the region. “There are a lot of restrictions on Palestinians. For me, it’s the psychological aspects of daily restriction,” he said, describing the frustrations he feels due to a lack of movement imposed by Israel within the West Bank. “We don’t live like normal people everywhere.”

However, despite the reduced number of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, many don’t see the population disappearing completely. “The level of Christian presence will be quite low but it will not disappear, this is clear,” said Frings. “If you ask me openly, I will say there will always be Christian life here because it’s the Holy Land and people are rooted here.”

Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Delarosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

The hardship of living in Jesus’ birthplace

BEIT SAHOUR — “We starve sometimes for a drop of water.”

This quote has been replaying in my head over and over ever since Wednesday night when we divided up into small groups to spend the night with different families in Palestine. Our group, Sarah, Augusta, Thea, Isobel and myself, spent the evening at the Khair home in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. Raed Khair picked us up and brought us to the house. We were immediately greeted by his wife, Therese, their 15-year-old twins, Mais and Majd, and three Christian pilgrims from Texas who were also there for dinner.

The first thing I noticed was that the family was East Orthodox Christian. Therese mentioned this to us early on, but it was clear from the giant rosary that stretched from floor to ceiling on the living room wall. Depictions of the Last Supper featured heavily in house décor, in frames and hanging on key chains.

At first, it was a little awkward. No one quite knew how to begin a conversation as we started eating a grain soup and drank lemonade made with lemons from Raed and Therese’s garden. Conversation began to come a little easier as we ate the main course: chicken with vegetables (seasoned with seven different spices) and stuffed zucchini. The pilgrims couldn’t stay for long, and after they left we had dessert: bananas, grain cake and tea with sage. We started to talk about what life is like for the Khair family.

(Clockwise from left) Sarah Wyman, Therese Khair, Mais Khair, Thea Piltzecker, Augusta Anthony, Majd Khair, Raed Khair and Steph Beckett share a family meal in the Khair home (Godland News / Isobel van Hagen)

She told us that she tries to invite pilgrims and visitors from other countries to their home about every four months so that they can learn more about Palestinian life and culture.

The story is not a simple one. There is bad and there is good. “We are trying to encourage everyone to come,” said Therese. “It’s safe and secure.”

“I like to exchange our stories together,” she said.

On the other hand, she added: “The obstacles that we face every day… the future of our kids. It’s very sad.”

Therese told us about some of the things that Palestinians in Bethlehem struggle to do. Maintaining a steady stream of water is one of them – Palestinians use water tanks on top of their houses for their water supply. The problem is that when the tanks empty, families have to wait up to four weeks for a fresh supply. Therese, with the occasional interjection in Arabic from Raed, told us that when the water runs out, the family will have to run the faucet for a few times per day, hoping they’ll catch the moment when the water returns. During most summers, they don’t get to water the plants in their garden.

We ended the dinner by helping Therese peel khubeizeh leaves off their stems, piling them on a platter for her to cook later in the week. Khubeizeh is a green vegetable that is typically sautéed with onions. It was then in our conversation that I realized how, in some ways, we are strikingly similar. Therese wakes up every morning and makes her kids breakfast and packs them lunch. She takes them to school, then goes to work as a nurse. She picks them up and makes dinner. It’s a normal life.

“We are good people,” she said. “We are humans. We should have our freedom and basic needs.”

But there are parts of her life that are totally alien to me. Like others in the occupied territories, the Khairs can’t move freely. There are Israeli checkpoints on many entrances and exits to the city. To travel internationally, they have to fly out of the airport in Jordan rather than the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv. For a family living such a normal life, they also feel trapped. Raed had Therese translate a sentence that also still replays in my head:

“You are living better than we do.”

Voices from Godland, Episode 1: The Báb

Godland brings you to the city of Haifa and the resting place of the Báb — the most revered figure of the most popular religion you’ve never heard of. Augusta Anthony visits the spiritual center of the Baha’i faith.

Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.

The terrible dizziness of approaching the divine Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM — When Ali Abu Al-Awar speaks of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), reams of history spool out. Here memories from the distant past and the nearly present co-habituate cautiously, both possessing equal merit. There are memories of Israeli military forces from 1967 spreading out over the plaza and crying in exultation, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Very close by is Al-Ghazali, the 12th century Muslim theologian, leading a study group on the reconciliation of legalistic and mystical Islam and underneath an olive tree writing his Revival of the Religious Sciences. From Al-Awar’s mouth, the Haram comes alive, teeming both with the conflicts that have defined Jerusalem’s strife alongside the spiritual truths that make this city transcendent.

As we followed Al-Awar to the Haram, we passed a Muslim cemetery where the old Arabic stones crowd one another, vying for recognition when the final judgment comes. Across the Mount of Olives, we could see the adjacent Jewish cemetery, a reminder that the faiths which live in Jerusalem all believe in the resurrection of the body, an apocalyptical tradition centered around the Temple Mount as a site of ascension.

Throughout the Muslim cemetery are green coffins with the words sadaqa jarya or “the only things that stay are good works.” When a Muslim dies, coffins are used as a transport from the mosque to the burial site, but not put in the ground. The presence of them around the cemetery points to the Haram as an active Muslim site, while the Jewish cemetery across the way remains quiet.

As we entered the Lion’s Gate, we were greeted by yet another guide, Ahmad Abu-Hadid, who has been ushering tourists and dignitaries through the site for 30 years. Abu-Hadid quickly condensed into a few minutes some 1,300 years of the site’s Muslim history, from the construction of the Dome of the Rock under the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 C.E. to the Jordanian government gaining access and control of the Haram in 1951. The Haram is a vast plaza, with minarets on all four sides, the Dome of the Rock in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the furthermost right, the third holiest mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. While the women of our group put on long loose skirts offered by the waqf, the Islamic religious trust in cooperation with the Jordanians who control access to the Haram, school children nearby played volleyball and old men sat under trees drinking tea.

The serenity of this Saturday morning proved to be deceptive as Al-Awar explained attempts by right-wing Jews to bomb the Dome of the Rock and the continued attempt by fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox Jews to assert their presence on the Mount, and their dream of destroying the Muslims sites and building a third temple.

“There is a fear of violence, a constant fear of Muslims losing control here,” Al-Awar said as we meandered around the Dome and towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To counteract these provocations Muslim citizen groups called Murabitin (for men) and Murabitat (for women) were formed in 2010 to safeguard the Haram. From Sunday to Thursday, they sit in circles studying Islamic thought, on guard for those seeking to undermine the status quo, the latest governmental iteration of which says only Muslims can pray on the Haram but tourists of other faiths can visit.

Even in the midst of these tensions, the Haram acts as a great source of unity for those of the Islamic faith in their connection to their religion and their God. Muslims from all over the world flock to the site, seen as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, to meet the prophets and speak with God. The Dome glittered magnificently on this cloudless day, as the sun beat down and the devout recited late morning prayers.

As my classmates were ushered into the Dome of the Rock for a brief visit, I was unable to join them because I was overcome by a terrible dizziness. One could say it was dehydration or the overwhelming feeling of approaching the divine. At a place like this, no one ever really knows.