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A brief history of Bethlehem

Contributed by Alex Kattan on 18.04.2007:

Bethlehem is a city in Palestine considered a central hub of Palestinian cultural and tourism industries.

It is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities but now has a Muslim majority. Christian emigration having accelerated in recent years due to political and economic factors.

The city has great significance for all Christians as it was the birthplace of Jesus. The traditional site of Rachel’s tomb, lies at the city’s north.

Bethlehem is also home to one of largest Palestinian Christian communities in the Middle East. It lies about 10 km (6 mi) south of Jerusalem, standing at an elevation of about 765 m (2,510 ft) above the sea, thus 30 m (100 ft) higher than Jerusalem.

The Bethlehem agglomeration includes the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the latter also having Biblical significance.

The Church of the Nativity, built by Constantine the Great in 330, stands in the centre of Bethlehem over a grotto or cave called the Holy Crypt, which according to Christian tradition is the place where Jesus was born. This is perhaps the oldest existing Christian church in the world. Close to it is another grotto, where Jerome the Latin father spent thirty years of his life in translating the Scriptures into Latin.

Bethlehem is home to Bethlehem University, a Roman Catholic institution which was founded under the direction of the Vatican.

According to the Bethlehem Municipality, the city has a total area of 6.0 km² (2.3 m²).

Population: 21,947 (1998)

Topography: 32 degrees north of the equator, 2,500 feet (760 m) above sea level

Climate: winter from November to March, coldest in January with high of 13 to low of 1 degree Celsius; summer from June to September, warmest in August with high of 27 to low of 17 degrees Celsius.

The city, located in the “hill country”, was originally called Ephrath (Gen. 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11). It was also called Beth-lehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2), Beth-lehem-judah (1 Sam. 17:12), and “the city of David” (Luke 2:4). It is first noticed in Scripture as the place where Rachel died and was buried “by the wayside,” directly to the north of the city (Gen. 48:7). Rachel’s tomb is located at the roadside, Bethlehem.

The valley to the east was the scene of the story of Ruth the Moabitess. There are the fields in which she gleaned, and the path by which she and Naomi returned to the town.

Bethlehem is the birth-place of David, the second king of Israel, and it is also the place where he was anointed as king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:4-13); and it was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his heroes brought water for him at the risk of their lives when he was in the cave of Adullam (2 Sam. 23:13-17).

Since it was distinguished above every other city as the birth-place of “Him whose goings forth have been of old” (Micah 5:2), it was here that the birth of Christ was expected. Accordingly, the gospels (Luke 2:4 and Matthew 2:1) report that Jesus, whom they proclaim as the Messiah, was born in Bethlehem, although he grew up in Nazareth.

Matthew reports that Herod had “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” killed when Jesus was born (Matt. 2:16, 18; Jer. 31:15). Jesus’ family escaped this fate for him, by fleeing to Egypt and then returning after Herod had died, shortly thereafter.

Roman and Byzantine periods

The city was wrecked during Bar Kokhba’s revolt (132-135) and the Romans set up a shrine to Adonis on the site of the Nativity. Only in 326 was the first Christian church constructed, when Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited Bethlehem.

During the Samaritan revolt of 529, Bethlehem was sacked and its walls and the Church of the Nativity destroyed, but they were soon rebuilt on the orders of the Emperor Justinian I. In 614.

The Persians invaded Palestine and captured Bethlehem. A story recounted in later sources holds that they refrained from destroying the Church of the Nativity on seeing the magi depicted in Persian clothing in one of the mosaics.

Arab rule and the Crusades.

In 637, shortly after Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim armies, the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab visited Bethlehem and promised that the Church of the Nativity would be preserved for Christian use.

In 1099, Bethlehem was captured by the Crusaders, who fortified it and built a new monastery and cloister on the north side of the Church of the Nativity.

The town prospered under their rule. On Christmas Day 1100 Baldwin I, first king of the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, was crowned in Bethlehem, and that year a Latin episcopate was also established in the town.

In the 1160s the nave of the Church of the Nativity was redecorated with mosaics showing the councils of the church. An ally of King Amalric I of Jerusalem, emperor Manuel I Comnenus of Byzantium, was one of the patrons of the work. On the south wall, an inscription in Greek reads: “the present work was finished by Ephraim the monk, painter and mosaicist, in the reign of the great emperor Manuel Porphyrogenitos Comnenus and in the time of the great king of Jerusalem, Amalric.”

Interestingly, the emperor’s name was placed first, in recognition of his role as overlord and protector of the Crusaders at the time.

However, in 1187, Saladin captured Bethlehem from the Crusaders, and the Latin clerics were forced to leave.

Saladin agreed to the return of two Latin priests and two deacons in 1192.

However, the town suffered from the loss of the pilgrim trade.

Bethlehem was briefly returned to Crusader control by treaty between 1229 and 1244.

In 1250, with the coming to power of Rukn al-Din Baibars, tolerance of Christianity declined, clergy left the town, and in 1263 the walls of the town were demolished.

The Latin clergy returned to the town over the following century, establishing themselves in the monastery adjoining the Basilica, and in 1347 the Franciscans gained possession of the Grotto of the Nativity as well as the right to administer and maintain the Basilica.

Bethlehem under the Ottoman Empire

During the years of Ottoman control from 1517 on, custody of the Basilica was bitterly disputed between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

From 1831 to 1841 Palestine was under the rule of Muhammad Ali of Egypt. During this period the town suffered an earthquake as well as the destruction of the Muslim quarter by troops, apparently as a reprisal for murder and rape. In 1841, Bethlehem came under Ottoman rule once more, and so it remained until the end of the First World War and the imposition of the British Mandate of Palestine.

Twentieth century.

The first Governor of Greater Bethlehem, after liberation from the Ottoman Empire was Mr. Giries Hanna Kattan, who resigned his post upon hearing of the infamous letter Mr. Balfour, the then British foreign secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschield, creating the seeds of the discontent in Palestine and the region, which persists until to-day, and published a week later in the Times of London, the news became widespread.

In the United Nations General Assembly’s 1947 resolution to partition Palestine, Bethlehem was included in the special international enclave of Jerusalem to be administered by the United Nations. Jordan occupied the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Many refugees from areas captured by Israeli forces in 1947 – 1948 came to Bethlehem, setting up encampments in the north of the city near the road to Jerusalem and on the hillside to the south between the city and Solomon’s Pools. These later became the official refugee camps of Beit Jibrin (or al-‘Azza) and ‘A’ida (in the north) and Deheisheh in the south.

This influx of refugees changed the demography of Bethlehem considerably, changing the Christian majority into a minority.

Jordan retained control of the city until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Bethlehem was captured by Israel along with the rest of the West Bank.

On December 21, 1995, Bethlehem became one of the areas under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority in conformance with the Oslo Accords. It is capital of the Bethlehem Governorate. The current population of the town is about 40,000. The Christian population is a decreasing minority, 12% in 2006, but a special statute requires that the mayor and a majority of the municipal council must nevertheless be Christian

The mayor as of this writing is Dr. Victor Batarseh.

Church of the Nativity Siege

With the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bethlehem has been the site of many confrontations. In May 2002, during an Israeli raid into the city, a number of locals entered the Church of the Nativity for protection.

It became the site of a 5-week stand-off.

It was estimated between 120 and 240 were inside the Church Of Nativity.

Several Palestinians inside the church compound were shot dead in cold blood by Israeli snipers during the siege.

The siege ended with an agreement for 13 Palestinians to be sent via Cyprus to various European counties and another 26 to be sent to Gaza.

Movement restrictions

Most entrances into and exits from the Bethlehem agglomeration to the rest of the West Bank are currently subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, with the level of access varying based on Israeli discriminatory practices.

Travel for Bethlehem’s Palestinian residents from the West Bank into Israeli-controlled Jerusalem is regulated by a permit-system.

Acquiring such permits to enter has become exceedingly rare.

Bethlehem was periodically placed under strict curfews which prevented residents from leaving their homes.

Palestinians are not allowed to visit Rachel’s Tomb, which is on the outskirts of the city. Solomon’s Pools lie to the south of Bethlehem.

THE Apartheid Wall

The construction by Israel of the Apartheid Wall passing through the north of Bethlehem, has had a severely negative impact on Bethlehem; politically, socially, and economically.

Christian minority

The percentage of Christians in the population of Bethlehem has been steadily falling, above all due to continuous emigration, as well as owing to the lower birth rate among the local Christians compared to the Muslims. In 1947, Christians accounted for 75 percent of the population of Bethlehem, but by 1998, their share had dropped to 33 percent.[4] Bethlehem’s former mayor, Hanna Nasser, says an estimated 2,000 Christians in Bethlehem have emigrated during the period of 2000 – 2003.

On this subject, the current mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarseh explains that, “Due to the stress, either physical or psychological, and the bad economic situation, many people are emigrating, either Christians or Muslims, but it is more apparent among Christians, because they already are a minority, and it is because it is easier for a Christian family to emigrate, because they have family abroad already, in the U.S. in South or Central America, or Australia, or Canada,” said Dr. Batarseh. “That is why Christian emigration is more apparent. We need this city to remain as a model of co-existence between the two religions. The more emigration we get this model will dissolve.”

The Palestinian Authority rule following the Oslo Accords officially promised equality to Christians of the Bethlehem area, but at times corruption in its judiciary enabled theft from them, and tolerated or even favoured the attempts by religious zealots to enforce Sharia on the Christian population. On occasion the lawless atmosphere witnessed violence such as a 1997 incident where PA Police opened fire on and wounded six Christian residents of Beit Sahour. During the al-Aqsa Intifada, the Tanzim staged shootings onto Israeli homes from Christian homes and institutions in Beit Jala against the wishes of the inhabitants, and Israeli return fire often destroyed the firing positions, which was especially linked to Christian flight.

During his March 2000 visit to Bethlehem, Pope John Paul II urged Palestinian Christians: “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.”

As owners of many of the hotels and services which cater to foreign tourists, the violence and resultant tourism downturn of the al-Aqsa Intifada also affected the Christian minority severely, leaving many economically stricken.[9] A statistical analysis of why Christians are leaving the area blamed the lack of economic and educational opportunities, especially due to the Christians’ middle-class status and higher education.

The current Hamas government’s official position has also been to support the city’s Christian population, which it feels can be useful in negotiating with the United States, though it has also been criticised for taking steps seen as trying to impose Islam on Christian neighbourhoods. Under Hamas, the Christian population has continued to suffer from a lack of law and order which has left it susceptible to land theft by elements that take advantage of ineffective courts and the reality that the often affluent, but not politically powerful, Christian population is unlikely to stand up for itself.

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