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Bethlehem: The Capital of Christmas

20 December 2016

Separation wall in BethlehemThe Separation Wall in Bethlehem cuts the city's residents off from their agricultural land, while illegal Israeli settlements expand on confiscated land. Photo: Garry Walsh, 2016

Vera Baboun is the Mayor of Christmas. More specifically, she is the Mayor of the capital city of Christmas: Bethlehem.

We met recently while I was visiting the city with the Irish Catholic Christian Solidarity Pilgrimage.

During the Christmas period the name Bethlehem will be heard in homes, schools and parishes all over Ireland, and indeed the world. This is the place where Jesus was born, and today you can still visit the site of his birth over 2,000 years ago.

But while Bethlehem captures the world’s attention during Advent, it remains sadly forgotten at other times of the year. It is spoken of as though it is an historical place, not one where people continue to live and face injustices on a daily basis.

Vera told us about life in this special place.

She told us that Bethlehem is a city of peace, love and hope. Sadly, it is a city which is today torn by the separation wall – the wall that divides the West Bank from Israel, and cuts Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Vera Baboun, Mayor of BethlehemVera Baboun in Bethlehem. Photo: Michael Kelly, The Irish Catholic 2016

It is ironic, in a sense, that the city which saw Mary and Joseph turned away from accommodation today faces such an immense physical barrier. The wall which cuts Bethlehem – separating farmers from their land and people from family members – stands against the message of hope and peace for which the city is revered.

Vera’s passion for Bethlehem comes from her faith. Approximately 34,000 Christians live in Bethlehem today, making-up one-fifth of the city’s population.

The Bethlehem Christians are carrying the mission for all. They are the living stones. But life is not easy. There are young people in Bethlehem who have never prayed in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 

Vera says that the Christian community there needs to sustain and remain. Both elements are important. One hand cannot clap, she says. You always need two hands.

Pope Francis has recognised the injustice facing people in this city and throughout the region.

To enter the city, you pass through military checkpoints. People wait patiently in line for their turn for their permits to be checked. These are the people fortunate enough to get permits to travel to Jerusalem – for many, that trip remains a dream.

Vera reminds us of the importance of pilgrimages to Bethlehem. Not only do pilgrims get exposed to the modern reality of life in the city, their visits are an economic lifeline.

Staying in Bethlehem is an important act of solidarity with the people of the city - to meet the living stones, to interact with the people living in this gated city and to hear their stories. 

Archbishop Eamon Martin, the patron of our pilgrimage, commented on the mayor’s speech that “if peace is possible, peace is necessary”. 

The situation in Bethlehem is a complex and conflictual one, but we must not lose hope. Just as the first Christmas was a challenging one, so are the future Christmas stories for the people in Bethlehem.

Vera urged us to stand in solidarity with the people of Bethlehem. She urged us to pray and reflect on what we had seen; to highlight the situation in our local communities; to raise the injustices we have seen with our politicians; and to encourage other pilgrims to stay in Bethlehem. Through Trócaire, the Catholic Church in Ireland is supporting ongoing efforts to bring peace and dignity to the people of this troubled land.  

Our actions can bring hope for the people of Bethlehem. We must advocate for them in any way possible.  I will leave the words to Vera who said these lines, after lighting the Christmas tree in Bethlehem last year:

“When we lit the tree, we gave a message that we cannot be without hope. We have to be with hope, despite everything surrounding us: the political situation, the situation in the Middle East, and war.”