This was a fascinating day emotionally, spiritually, politically, and in every other way of life: going to Bethlehem. I have long lost the image of "O Little Town O Bethlehem" hymns, which was dashed and replaced by Bethlehem the captive after last year's trip to this area of the world. Bethlehem is a Palestinian refugee camp, surrounded by a gray cement wall that is 8 meters high, surrounding the entire city. People who are Palestinian and live in here have a hard time getting out, and any Israeli citizen caught in the city is fined $25,000.
We began the day with a quick bus ride from Jerusalem. We got through the security point quickly, and found our friend Elias Ghareeb. Elias is a young Palestinian Christian (Greek Orthodox), and he gave us a royal tour:
* Started off with a visit to the Church of the Nativity, in which we kissed the rock where Jesus was born and the other rock where he was put in the manger. The Church is beautiful, with floors that are part stone and part wooden trap door, in which, when lifted, reveal the mosaic floors of St. Helena's days (4th century).
* We then went next door to St. Catherine's, Roman Catholic Church, in which we visited the place where St. Jerome once worked on the Vulgate version of the Bible.
* After a cup of coffee, we made our way to the Milk Chapel, in which the Virgin was said to have dropped some milk as she fed the baby Jesus, and the entire ceiling went white. The stone (lime) is said to have medicinal value when a woman takes some of the chalk from the ceiling (limestone) and ingests it.
* We then went to St. Cabus, a Greek Orthodox Chapel/Church, filled with icons from floor to ceiling, including the ceiling. Incredibly beautiful. Behind the Church were the 5th century Byzantine ruins of the Church and a Chapel that housed the remains of "some shepherds," as this church was the place where the Greek Orthodox Church believe the Shepherds were buried that worshiped Jesus.
* We made our way to Herod's Tomb/Monument, which is where Heron was buried. They only recently found his body/remains. What made an impression was the pool (Roman) at the bottom of the mound, with aqueducts bringing water to him. From the top of the hill you could see many Israeli settlements, made possible by moving out Palestinian families...illegally often times.
* We had a lunch of 12 different salads at Elias' family place, with lots of pita bread, with coffee and baklava for dessert. Yum!
* Souvenirs were bought next door at a Fair Trade shop, in which the artisans themselves get a fair pay back for the purchases we made.
* We then went to the Canadian Chapel at the Roman Catholic Shepherd's Field, different than the Orthodox! The Chapel is round, and along with a group of folks from Singapore we sang "Hark the Herald" and "Silent Night." It was magical because the acoustics are great, and to hear us sing one verse of Silent Night in English, followed by the Singapore Christians afterward in their language made us all breathe in the Holy! A great archtect by the name of Barluzzi designed this chapel, and other chapels throughout the land.
* We visited a church in which the spring of water produced a verdant garden in the middle of the dessert;
* We took in 2 out of 3 Solomonic Pools (Old Testament talks about these pools), which are larger by two or three sizes of the Olympic pools;
* We tasted Kanafeh, which is sweeter than baklava;
* We then went to the Palestinian Refugee Center, experiencing the full brunt of the 8 m. high wall that entombs Bethelehem. We were moved beyond tears by the wall, as well as the story of Palestinians who are literally stuck here because of Israeli law. The refugees who first lived here were moved here decades ago because Israel's forces took over 27 Palestinian towns, and those numbers swelled in the recent years. We were all left with the dull throbbing pain of dealing with being in the middle of Bethlehem, home of the Prince of Peace, in a town entombed by anger and fear and violence. On one wall was a mural by the artist Bansky, who drew a picture of the wall entombing a Christmas tree.
* Elias leaves us at the gate, having just learned of his 87 year old grandmother's death: prayers be with him.
* We left the security point by 7 in the evening, Iraeli/Jerusalem time, which is an hour later than Palestinian time! No buses! No taxis. We had to walk a dark street with few street lights, no traffice, only stillness.
* We finally made it (20 mintues later) to a bus stop, only to be met by an older Israeli who told us that "it isn't like the old days, when Palestinians knew their place, and we knew our place."
* Tonight, the waiter at our restaurant A Hazzar told us that he is Palestinian from Bethlehem. Even though it is 20 minutes away by car, it takes him 3 hours to simply get through the gate every morning of his working life. Why? He is Palestinian.
Shalom and Salaam, Brett