Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Christmas is fast approaching and with it the joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus (pbuh: peace be upon him) will be enjoyed as more than one billion Christians around the globe gather with family and friends in prayer, joy and reflection. Children will be eagerly waiting for the morning of that blessed day with anticipation that only a child can enjoy. Christmas trees dressed, if you will, with decorations new and old, for that grand day. Festively wrapped gifts will tease children to guess their contents; children will not sleep much the night before – with all those gifts begging attention. The story of the birth of the baby Jesus (pbuh) will be told and retold thousands of times; scenes of the Nativity and symbols of the humble birth recreated in many forms on lawns, mantles, and endless displays. Christmas pageants and concerts will commemorate the blessed event in time-honored fashion around the world.

As a Muslim, I too participate in the beautiful festivals of Christmas. During elementary school in the United States, I sang carols with the school choir, performed in concerts and joined the annual visit to Dearborn’s historic Greenfield Village that depicts American life in centuries gone by and houses a museum, historical buildings and homes that once belonged to famous Americans. One of my favorite Carols, since that early childhood, has always been ‘Silent Night’, for it carries a pertinent message; one that sums up the atmosphere at time of Christ’s birth and reflects the true spirit of Christmas today.

While I happily participated in these activities, it always seemed that my teachers, and the world, did all they could to deny the Palestinian connection to this blessed holiday. I am Palestinian; I was born in Jerusalem, a few miles from Bethlehem, the Palestinian village of Jesus’ birth. Singing to people with no knowledge of Palestine, Palestinians, and our link to Bethlehem and to Jesus always seemed very strange; it still seems strange. For our audiences, it was always about Israel. Time and time again, I heard people say how nice it would be to visit the Israeli town of Bethlehem, ignoring the fact that Bethlehem is a Palestinian town and Palestinian Christians and Muslims live there under the brutal military occupation of Israel.

I realized that we were singing ‘O little Town of Bethlehem’ to people who had absolutely no idea of what really was happening there. We were singing to people who were completely ignorant of the thousands of desperate refugees who live in Bethlehem’s refugee camps. To our audience, Bethlehem was am idyllic scene, the one often found on post cards, and Christmas greetings. I knew the brutal truth: that Bethlehem is home to some of the poorest people on earth.

Palestinians whose home are the refugee camps of Bethlehem, live in abject poverty and misery, as they have done for generations after being expelled from their homes with the creation of the state of Israel in the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948. How very fitting that Holy Mary, seeking refuge from the mighty Roman army, a safe place to give birth, came to this town.

Today, two thousand years later, Bethlehem like much of Palestine, continues to be home to thousands of refugees. Ringed by settlements for Jews only, walled off and separated, Bethlehem today is virtually cut off from the rest of Palestine: choked by the settlements that surround her. Its land, water and other resources expropriated by the Israelis in a relentless effort to make life ever more unbearable for the Palestinian natives and refugees who call the village home.

Today, we hear of pregnant Palestinian women who must endure the hell of the Israeli occupation, its inhumane and degrading checkpoints, in order to reach the safe haven of a hospital to give birth to their children. While the blessed Virgin found refuge in a humble stable, many of her contemporary young mothers to be, are forced to stand endless hours at checkpoints manned by Israel’s teenage soldiers who not only lack compassion, but simply could not care less about the plight of a woman in labor. Many women have given birth in taxis or in the streets that are choked with dust in summer and swimming with mud in winter as they wait at checkpoints for hours to receive permission from the young soldier who arbitrarily decides whether they ‘look pregnant or only fat’. . Too many children and mothers have died from lack of medical care and failure to be allowed to pass in a timely manner.

The always ‘thoughtful’ and ‘humane’ Israeli army, issues ‘birthing kits’ to the young soldiers that control the many checkpoints that choke the life of Palestine and its people. These ‘birthing kits’ are to be used to help women who ‘choose’ to give birth at these checkpoints: no woman would opt to give birth under such conditions. Still, an ever growing number of Palestinian infants carry the name ‘Hajez’ (from the Arabic word for check point) as a bitter reminder of their birthplace.

I fail to grasp what benefit such inhumanity bestows upon the Jewish state: the bitter truth is that 2,000 years after Mary gave birth to Jesus under Roman occupation, Palestinian mothers in Bethlehem and elsewhere in occupied Palestine still seek safe refuge to deliver their infants. The birth of a human being is a momentous and joyous occasion for the parents; even for those who suffer the torturous nightmare, pain and anxiety of checkpoint deliveries; but the tragedy of seeing this would be joyous event end in the unbearable agony of the death of a new born or its mother is unconscionable.

So, as you hear ‘O little Town of Bethlehem’ this Christmas season, please pause for a moment to remember those for whom this Palestinian town is home: this year, once again, there will be no Christmas festivities in Manger Square. The Christmas ‘carols’ will be a choir Israeli tanks and helicopters pierced with echoes from the shoot to kill curfews that will blanket the city, not in deep and dreamless sleep, but with fear and dread; the everlasting light that shines in her darkened streets – the endless search lights of military patrols.

The Christian children of Palestine, together with their Muslim brothers and sisters, will observe Christmas and remember its beautiful story this year, but they will have little to celebrate. Fear and hunger will keep them awake through the night, not the anticipation of gifts and feasts as in the Christmas of other lands. While the rest of the world celebrates this glorious holiday of birth and rebirth, Bethlehem’s children will pray for some brief respite from the fright of the killings, shootings, abuse, and destruction that is the reality of life in Palestine.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in the dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love
Oh morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth.
And praises sing to God the king, and peace to men on earth.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Oh holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our lord Emanuel.