Even choosing a Holy Land wine is political

Bethlehem-area Christians gather for a Mass in protest at the separation wall (AP photo)

With Christmas, thoughts and prayers turn towards the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This year the Christians in Bethlehem hope that millions of prayers will also be directed to an area two miles west of the church, the small village of Beit Jala. There, the Cremisan Monastery produces its famous altar wine which is certified by the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem as pure wine for the celebration of Mass according to Canon 924 of the Code of Canon Law 1983.

The trouble is that the winery and the monastery are in the path of the proposed Israeli separation wall. Maps show that the barrier will cut off villagers and the monastery from its agricultural land. In an effort to silently protest against more Palestinian land being taken by Israel, every Friday for over a month dozens of Palestinian Christians have been attending open-air Mass in Beit Jala.

Although wine has been produced on Beit Jala’s terraced hillsides since the 14th century, it was not until the late 19th century that its wine industry began to flourish. Della Shenton of 5th Gospel Retreats, who imports the wine to Britain, told me: “The Salesians of Don Bosco set up a winery at Cremisan to provide a livelihood for the local population and to finance their schools in the region.” Now, 125 years later, Cremisan produces 700,000 litres annually, of which around 10,000 bottles are imported into Britain each year. These are consumed in many British churches, abbeys and training establishments.

If the barrier is erected the Cremisan monastery and winery will be separated from the West Bank, even though it is part of the fabric of Bethlehem. Not only will the workers be on the other side of the wall and need permits to travel to the winery each day, the wall will also separate the monastery from grapes supplied from other religious communities on the West Bank. Both workers and grapes will have to go through checkpoints. But as the winery will be on the East Jerusalem/Israeli side, there will be no checkpoints between the cellar, the ports and churches in Israel.

Choosing Holy Land wine is no longer just a question of taste, but a matter of peace and politics. Until a decade or so ago Cremisan was the sole producer of wine in the Occupied Territories. Now, though, it has been joined by a wide range of Merlots and other red wines from the many new wineries and vineyards run by Israeli settlers on disputed land. The expanding industry has resulted in swathes of rugged and uneven hillsides being covered with neat rows of vineyards which, like olive trees, thrive on mountainous land with low rainfall. In contrast to the overseas consumers who boycott these wines, some, especially Christian Evangelists and those inclined to be ultra-Orthodox, look for their labels. But none of these can be confused with the distinctive altar wine made at Cremisan.

Whether the Salesians will be cut off from Bethlehem will be seen in the next few months. Meanwhile, while the silent protest of prayer continues, there is something very special to celebrate in Bethlehem. This should be the last Christmas when rain comes through the roof of the Church of the Nativity. In early 2012 the Palestinian Authority will be calling for international tenders for extensive repairs to the whole building.

Costs are estimated to be between £6.4 million and £9.7 million. This follows the survey by the University of Ferrara in 2010-11 after the Palestinian Authority took over the massive job of the repairs from the churches.