On Sunday and Monday, May 25 and 26, Pope Francis will visit the Palestinian Territories and Israel during his first papal trip to the Holy Land.
His Holiness will spend much of Sunday in Bethlehem, where roads have been repaired, flags raised, marching bands rehearsed, graffiti painted over, and security preparations cautiously organized.
The public will welcome the pope to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, where he’ll celebrate Mass at 11 am. His arrival will be greeted with jubilant throngs of ordinary locals who long for a word of blessing and a promise of peace.
But what will the pope learn in Bethlehem?
In a scheduled meeting with the Palestinian Authority, he will doubtless hear from local politicians that the ancient city is suffering economically because of the Israeli security fence – in some places a wall – surrounding it. He is scheduled to meet Palestinian children at the Dehaishe refugee camp. He will most certainly receive complaints about the “occupation.”
But which occupation?
For centuries, Bethlehem was a Christian city, with believers comprising around 80% of the population as recently as 50 years ago. Today, however, it is less than 15% Christian, and that number continues to dwindle. Bethlehem is increasingly occupied by Muslims, some of whom exert great pressure on their Christian neighbors.
Since the Oslo Accords, it’s been the unspoken rule that “what happens to Christians in Bethlehem stays in Bethlehem.” That is beginning to change, however, thanks to young, courageous Christians like Christy Anastas.
In a hard-hitting video released in April, Christy described what life was like for her and her Christian family in Bethlehem, and why she has begun to speak out against the multiple injustices, lack of free speech and abuse of women in her hometown.
“Breaking through the silence and fear faced by so many Palestinians,” Luke Moon reported, “Christy described how her uncle, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, had to pay the al-jizyah, protection money that is often levied against non-Muslims. After some time her uncle refused to pay…. Because of his refusal to pay up he was murdered in front of his house.”
Christy even dared to say that if she had been Israel’s Prime Minister during the 2nd Intifada, she too would have put up a security barrier to stop the suicide bombings. This is especially poignant, because her family home is surrounded by the wall – on three sides.
Her story is alarming – she has received political asylum in Britain because of death threats from one of her own family members; others have disowned her. During a recent interview, I found Christy to be not only brave and eloquent, but utterly convincing.
And now, perhaps thanks to her courage, others are also speaking out.
Recently a young Bethlehem man – who will remain unnamed – told me about an attack on a Christian church. I passed it on to Dexter VanZile, who posted the story for CAMERA SnapShots.
“A Bethlehem Greek Orthodox Church (St. George's Church -- Khadar -- near Beit Jala) was attacked by Muslims during its annual St. George's Day services on May 6. ... Some local Muslims either tried to park a car too close the church and/or tried to enter the church during a service honoring St. George -- the initial instigation isn't clear. …Several then started throwing stones at the church.”
Windows were broken, one worshipper was stabbed, and several others were injured. We later learned later that a young man’s face was badly beaten, requiring two surgeries. And as a smart-phone video revealed, the police didn’t arrive promptly enough to prevent damage, injuries and terror.
Those aren’t the only stories. Now that the silence has been broken, reports abound about confiscated Christian property, honor killings and sexual molestation.
Will the pope hear about these abuses against Christians?
VanZile, who is Catholic, is doubtful. “The pope’s trip to Bethlehem highlights the bind Christians are in. If he doesn’t go, he misses an opportunity to show people how important the city is to Christians world wide. But when he does go, his presence will be used to score propaganda points to demonstrate just how wonderful Christians have it under the PA.
“It’s just a mess. It’s an open scandal and everyone knows it, but no one can really talk about it.”
Since it’s unlikely that Pope Francis will hear candid reports from local Christians during his rather formal visit to Bethlehem, I asked Christy Anastas what she would say to him if she had the opportunity. In her response, she surely speaks for countless others.
“I would ask the pope to recognize that the Palestinian Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their problems are compounded because people only focus on the rock, Israel, but ignore the hidden injustices of the hard place – the Palestinian territories. These territories are increasingly being impacted by radical Islamists, whose ideologies are similar to those of Hamas....The pope must look at regional trends [such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq] and understand that the West Bank is just one small step away from replicating these.”
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.