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Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Hard Life Of Christians in Bethlehem

The hard life of Christians in Bethlehem

Abe Ata 29-Nov-2007

Bethlehem WallI was born in Bethlehem from a Christian family. My dad hails from a Lebanese-Syrian Maronite (Eastern Catholic) family.

After his father's death my dad took over as a church organist and played at the Lutheran church and Saint George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem for 45 years. He also taught English at the Vatican-funded Bethlehem University and played the violin — a rare talent among the wild unruly Middle Eastern societies.

At night my dad read Shakespeare and Wordsworth. He was the first Palestinian (though Lebanese at heart) to ever visit the Holocaust Museum in West Jerusalem. We are told he shed tears on that day.

That emotion must have been unparalleled for a Christian living in Bethlehem in 1969. Bethlehem was then, as is today, under Israeli military occupation. It must have been pathological to shed tears for Jewish victims of the Holocaust at a time when he was a victim of an Israeli military occupation.

Living as part of a Christian minority in a predominately Middle Eastern Muslim society was not any easier. This double bind spelt doom for 400,000 other Palestinian Christians and forced 80 per cent of them to leave the land of their ancestors during the past 40 years.

Ongoing apathy by a majority of American evangelical Christians has also indirectly contributed to the Palestinian Christian exodus.

In 1968 there were no credible universities in Bethlehem, so I left for the American University in Beirut. I was issued a temporary ID by the Israeli military authorities as permit to leave and re-enter the occupied West Bank within 12 months. I was not able to do so opting instead to complete a BA in Psychology. This proved semi-fatal. My permit was declared null and void and my right of return was abolished with a stroke of a pen.

Subsequently, my dad wrote a letter to Senator Symington in Washington DC. He pleaded with him to intervene on my behalf with the military authorities. He argued: 'Why is it easier for American Jews to migrate to Israel, but my son, who was born in Bethlehem as were his mother's ancestors, is not allowed to set foot there?'

Four weeks later my dad received a reply assuring him I was able to return to Bethlehem any time he desired. I was given 'permission' to see my parents, but only for four weeks. Disappointed I returned to AUB, completed my degree and left for Australia.

Two months before my dad died in 1994 I travelled on my Australian passport to Amman in Jordan on the way to visit my parents in the occupied West Bank. I have several aunts and uncles from my mother's family who live in Amman. Like most other Palestinian Christians they have been affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy since the fourth century.

Being identified as Bethlehem-born on my passport did not help at the Israeli crossing at the river Jordan. Like most other Western passport holding Palestinians, I had to strip naked as a condition of being granted a visiting visa. Wearing a cross around my neck made no difference, and why should it! My toothpaste, medication, shampoo and other toiletries were confiscated with an explanation that they could not be verified as such.

Five hours later I was allowed to travel to Bethlehem to see my dying father. His cancer was too advanced then. Lacking courage I returned to Australia. He died six weeks later.

My mother is now living on her own in a rented flat with my older sister in Bethlehem. She is 85 and getting frailer by the day. She complains on the phone that the other Christian families living in the same four-storey building have left for South America.

She tells me that of the 40 families she used to visit only two are left behind. Curfews, local religious fanatics, terrorists and Israeli military check points make her feel like a trapped mouse. There is no safety, no protection and no certainty. Anyone, she says, can walk to your house at night and take you away, and no-one will care.

Bethlehem is now fenced off from the rest of the world, so my mother can't even visit her daughter in Jerusalem. It takes from six to eight weeks to get a permit from the military to be allowed to go to Jerusalem, even though Jerusalem is only seven kilometres away.

Two months ago they found skin cancer on my mother's leg. She can't go to Israeli hospitals because she is not a Jew and does not have government insurance.

'Everyone has little energy left to fight,' my mother says. 'Do you know anyone who lived under occupation for 40 years and stayed sane?'

Abe AtaProfessor Abe W. Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a ninth-generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem, and currently works at the Australian Catholic University.


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