One of the bitterest ironies of last Christmas was the strong security precautions in force in Bethlehem. Extra police were on duty outside the Church of the Nativity, and armed Israeli troops were posted on the rooftops. Could anything be further from the Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill toward men?
These precautions highlight the tragedy of the Middle East situation. The Jews have been in occupation of Bethlehem since the Six Day War in 1967, and since Christmas of that year have tried to organise the celebrations at the religious shrine which half the people of the world regard as the holiest.
The measures employed last Christmas were to counteract threatened attempts to use terror against the annual pilgr)ms and worshippers — praiseworthy, we must admit, but at Christmas we can only regret their necessity and pray for a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem.
During the Christmas Day rituals of 1967, the Israeli Military Governor took a prominent part. No doubt conscious of the fact that he was the first* Jewish ruler of Bethlehem since King Herod. He made a ceremonial entry into the town and sat in a special seat at the front of the Church of the Nativity. Ile must have been satisfied that he had planned the Christmas celebrations with commendable thoroughness to avoid any outbreaks of violence.
During the past six years the main aim of the authorities has continued to be to keep the Jews out of Bethlehem at Christmas, so that genuine worshippers are not denied their religious rites. To this end 20,000 priority passes have been issued each year, with checkpoints to admit only bona fide passholders.
First priority is given to Israeli Christians, followed by organised pilgrim parties, Christian tourists and non-Christian tourists, in that order. The traditional Christmas patriarchal processions and ecclesiastical pomp have gone on as before, with the Israelis using the full power of their political and military authority to avoid any flaring up of trouble.
The celebrations go on until January 19, when the Greeks and Armenians finally wind up Christmas by removing the special ornaments, cloths, icons and books, leaving the Grotto to the pilgrims. An 80-page booklet of procedure has been printed in English, Hebreu, and Arabic, and the whole operation time-tabled so that each Christian community receives its due.
Even so, the Israeli presence is a reminder of the smouldering contention that exists between two races of people, and even at Christmas one cannot view the scars of war with blind eyes. Yet, incredibly, Christmas has been celebrated in Bethlehem without incident, even though the streets of the little town have been thronged with people of all nationalities.
Bethlehem is situated on the edge of an escarpment of the Judean highlands. On the eastern side rocky terraces abundant with figs, vines and olives drop steeply into a valley. Interspersed among these are the flat-roofed white houses, the bell. towers of the convents and monasteries and stretching beyond lie the wastes of the wilderness of Judea reaching to the Dead Sea.
Throughout the centuries of Christianity pilgrims have journeyed to Bethlehem through the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem. They wend their way to the little town that was the birthplace of the Son of God, the Saviour of the World.
The Church of the Nativity dominates Bethlehem, and visitors cannot fail to be impressed by it. Now a veritable museum of the Christian Faith, its massive stone walls are a forceful reminder that the Church has served as a fortress against infidels.
The church building standing today is that erected by Justinian in the 6th century. It is the oldest Christian church in the world still used as a place of worship.
Its most striking feature is the small. low door through which only a small child can walk into the building without bowing the head in humility. The original door was bricked up to prevent Saracen vandals riding into the church on horseback.
Below the church is the cave-like Grotto of the Nativity, a spot consecrated by centuries of pious worship. This is the scene perpetuated in so many of our own churches each year by a Christmas crib.* Coming out of the Grotto and through the church, the way leads down the street of the Milk Grotto, where the Latin bells ring out on Christmas Eve. Over a wall, the Shepherds' Fields stretch out in a glorious pattern of light and shadow. Here the shepherds were watching their flocks when the Angel brought them the news that the Holy Child had been born in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem provides the last surviving link with the Crusaders, for the intermarriage among the Christian community has preserved the Norman characteristics of fair skin and blue eyes amone, the local people. This is something of a surprise after travelling among the normally dark-skinned and dark-haired Israelis.
The traditional dress of Bethlehem women never fails to excite favourable comment. Even in present troubled times it still retains the splendour of the medieval past. Married women wear picturesque steenle-crowned, conical hats which are draped with flimsy veils.
A heavy chain of coins worn round the forehead denotes that a young woman of i Bethlehem is unmarried, This is, n fact, her dowry and is covered by a plain white veil without the conical hat. All the
Bethlehem women wear long, (lowing heavy red dresses, the bodices and wide sleeves of which are beautifully embroidered in a traditional cross-stitch.
On Christmas morning the processions of church dignitaries in their colourful vestments, carrying embroidered banners, wend their way along the five-mile dusty, winding road south of Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity.
the narrow streets and alleys of 'Bethlehem arc lined with small shops and balconied houses. In the square curio and souvenir shops abound. for the economy of the town is largely dependent upon tourist traffic.
One of the local specialities is mother-of-pearl made into baptism shells, crucifixes, brooches and also used for the inlay work which is a feature of Eastern furniture.
Another souvenir feature is the golden-brown olive wood. It is exquisitely grained and, when highly polished, makes admirable bindings for Bibles, missals and prayer books.
Last year Mr. and Mrs. Harold Wilson visited Bethlehem on Christmas Day, their son Giles being in Israel working at a kibbutz. Perhaps more world leaders should visit the little town at Christmas, in the hope that in some way their future deliberations could be influenced by the main purpose of Christ's earthly span of life. Unfortunately, the Christmas message is so often forgotten throughout the rest of the year.
This year, more than ever, we have reason to cast a prayerful look at the holiest spot in the world.