MONDAY, 15TH NOVEMBER – Bethlehem
Lunch was at the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, a project founded by Gp. Cpt. Leonard Cheshire in 1960 and still run by Christians and now an important hospital for the West Bank. Whilst we were there we were told that Christians now form only 1.5% of Israel’s population of app. 5mill. Many have emigrated because of the situation and because of the fear that this exodus will continue, but there are some who are trying to create work for young Christians to help them remain in the land.
After lunch we drove into Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem where we were able to venerate the birth-place of Jesus and visit the caves associated with S. Jerome and the early monks. We were lucky to have to queue for only 30mins before we gained entrance and were able to sing our Christmas carols in the grotto of the Nativity. It was first erected by Empress Helena in 323, destroyed during a revolt in 529 and subsequently rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. The building we is a remarkable place in that it has avoided destruction since that time.
We were able to spend time in prayer here before returning to the hotel – and the noisy bustle of the final day of the Muslim feast of the Hajj. On the way back I discovered that the Muslims in Israel are Sunni, not Shi’ite, which explains why they are less ‘fundamentalist’ than their Shi’ite counterparts. Certainly it’s more relaxing here than in West Jerusalem and more welcoming – maybe another example of the way in which living in ghetto’s and formed by a religion that is very exclusive affects the way in which one deals with strangers.