On 6 December, Donald Trump officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “It has been the capital of the Israeli people since ancient times,” said the President. “It’s undeniable, it’s just a fact.” Christians in Bethlehem responded to the news by burning photos of the American president. They held signs saying: “Jerusalem, Palestine’s heart, is not up to negotiations.”
This may come as a surprise to many in the West. We probably assume that Palestine’s Christians prefer the democratic Israelis to their Islamist-heavy countrymen. Sadly, that’s not the case.
In 2003, Israel began enclosing Bethlehem behind a 23-foot concrete wall. Its purpose was to keep suicide bombers from crossing out of the West Bank and into Israel during the Intifada. But even after the worst unrest settled, the wall kept growing. And Christians living in the town, who have never taken up arms against Israel, are suffering for it.
As Hanan Nasrallah, a Palestinian employee of the Catholic Relief Services, put it: “The separation wall… cuts family from each other. People get humiliated at checkpoints. People do not have many opportunities to improve their living standards. So, therefore, Christians who can afford to, are trying to leave this country.”
It’s not just families that are being split up, either. The wall also runs through the neighbouring village of Beit Jala, which is 80 percent Christian. Upon completion, it will cut off a Salesian monastery from its sister-convent and the rest of the local Christian community. The plight of Beit Jala’s Christians prompted Cardinal Vincent Nichols to write a letter to William Hague in 2012, asking him to appeal to Tel Aviv directly.
And this doesn’t even touch on those Palestinian Christians displaced from their historic homes by encroaching settlements, or those terrorised by “price tag attacks” carried out by radical Israeli nationalists. These are not acts of the Israeli government, though it is the government’s responsibility – both morally and under international law – to respect the rights of Palestinians, whatever their religion.
None of which I say to demonise this beleaguered nation, which is admirable in more ways than not. Too often, critics of the world’s only Jewish state are those who also happen to think there should be no such thing as a Jewish state at all. But Israel is squarely in the wrong here, and it’s crucial that we tell her so. We are her friends, not her apologists.
We can practice true friendship – and true discipleship – by demanding our leaders make relieving the plight of Palestinian Christians a foreign policy priority. President Trump can and should demand the plans for the West Bank wall be redrawn, and settler encroachment into Christian neighbourhoods cease, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In the meantime, when you sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this season, think of its denizens today. Their ancestors heard Our Lord’s first cries as His Mother wrapped him in swaddling clothes. They watched through the windows of an overcrowded inn as three kings laid gifts at the foot of His manger. They were the shepherds who abandoned their flock to catch a glimpse the Holy Family. Please keep them in your hearts this Christmas, as they kept the new-born Christ, and pray for their deliverance.