How Bethlehem’s Christian mayor is restoring the city

The head of restoration at the Church of the Nativity inspects a renovated mosaic (Getty)

Last Christmas in Jerusalem it was hard to buy a Christmas pudding or see a decorated fir tree in the Western half of the city. It’s the same this year. Interestingly, this December marks the first century of non-Muslim rule in Jerusalem since the Crusades when the Ottomans surrendered to British troops. Today, visitors find a prosperous, modern city. For some who work there, to borrow a phrase from the Book of Revelation, it is the “New Jerusalem” – appropriate for the city of Christianity’s birth, the “mother of all churches” (Mater Omnium Ecclesiarum).

The population is pushing a million and, as in the rest of Israel, the rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the world. With jobs aplenty, the Arab Christians in Jerusalem have money to purchase Christmas presents and put on a feast on Monday December 25. Wages are also considerably higher than in the West Bank.

Four miles away, Bethlehem’s 12,000 Christians (as against 20,000 Muslims) are celebrating Christmas with much festivity. But money and jobs are scarce. The challenges facing the city of Jesus’s birth are many. With unemployment at nearly 23 per cent, Bethlehem has the highest jobless rate in the West Bank. Because of this, some Christians and Muslims are considering emigrating. Contrary to what is commonly thought, political reasons are not the main motivation. Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the Holy See, says Christians are well treated in Palestine. They have equal rights and occupy senior positions in the Palestinian Authority.

Apart from the wall, the problem is inadequate jobs – or tourists who stay and spend money. Consequently, the tourist industry fails to provide enough work. The estimated contribution of the tourism sector to Palestine’s GDP is only six per cent and in the whole of the West Bank tourism employs less than 33,500. Much to the despair of locals, many tourists who come to Bethlehem stay at hotels in Israel and just visit the Church of the Nativity on a bus tour for a matter of hours.

As usual there is the giant Christmas tree in Manger Square, the Latin (Roman) Catholic Midnight Mass, processions, bands and celebrations continuing until January 18. After the Catholic and Protestant Christmas on December 25, there is the Greek, Syrian and other Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and the Armenian Christmas on January 18.

Fortunately the lights on the Christmas tree in Manger Square this year have been turned on again. They were turned off for three days to protest against President Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. There have been other demonstrations near the wall as well.

The newly appointed Christian mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, a lawyer and man of action, hopes to change this bleak situation. Both his investment plan and sweeping changes for new infrastructure include roads, tunnels and a water system. Last month, when writing in an Israeli newspaper, he showed he was not shy of angering Israelis. He wrote that it was impossible for Bethlehem to expand because so much surrounding land has been occupied and appropriated by Israel. Further, its 2,000-year-old contiguity with Jerusalem has been cut by both annexations and a network of 18 Israeli settlements and segregated road networks.

While waiting for the mayor’s plans to begin, many hope that the Church of the Nativity restoration will strengthen the Christian presence in Palestine, boost tourism and entice art lovers to spend more days in the holy city.

After four years of restoration work costing more than $18 million, most of the scaffolding inside the church has now been dismantled. This, together with the removal of centuries of dust, has left Crusader-era mosaics sparkling in sunlight. For the first time for centuries the full splendour of the church can be seen. Ziad al-Bandak, the government official in charge of the restoration, reports that locals, pilgrims and tourists come to study parts of the mosaics.

Many come to see the seventh angel. Previously, all that could be seen in the upper level of the central nave of the church was a mosaic of a troop of six angels marching in white tunics. The seventh angel was uncovered through scanning by the thermographic survey and by removing a layer of gypsum.

One area of restoration has been puzzling experts: the frescoes of the Oriental-style men in the north transept. They have Latin transcripts and are more connected to the Resurrection at Easter than the birth of Christ. Al-Bandak explains that they are the Apostles around Jesus in a portrait of the Incredulity of St Thomas, but this does not explain why such a later scene from Jesus’s adult life would be in a church dedicated to the birth of Jesus.

And the Church of the Nativity is now supplemented by a huge modern art display in Bethlehem. In contrast to the pre-medieval religious art in the church, visitors can see the modern paintings in the politically charged Walled-Off Hotel – a take on the Waldorf Hotel in New York. When this 10-bedroom hotel/museum (with rooms ranging from $60 to $265 a night) opened last Easter, its owner, the Bristol-based graffiti artist and political activist Banksy, said that it had the “worst view of any hotel in the world”.

Windows look over slabs of concrete of the controversial wall, known also as the separation barrier, between Israel and the West Bank. Grim though the sight is outside, inside the hotel are millions of pounds’ worth of Banksy’s paintings, large and small. There is also the unique Banksy gift shop, which sells limited-edition crucifixes, painted keyrings, T-shirts and other works, some mail order. All profits go towards sustaining the hotel and social projects.

Before opening the hotel, Banksy aired his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After his Christmas card in 2015 of Joseph and Mary being prevented from reaching Bethlehem because of the wall, he did images to draw international attention to the wall.

Although Banksy is creating much-needed jobs and drawing attention to the economic problems created by the wall, some Palestinians feel that he has drowned out the voice of locals. Others, though, appreciate the publicity and the tourists it has brought.

The hotel looks as if it is there to stay and, also, more restoration works on the Church of the Nativity are planned. Al-Bandak says experts plan to expose more areas of the floor mosaic which date back to the 330s. However, although archaeological research into rock cuttings near the birthplace of Jesus have been discussed, the three denominations that control the church have not yet given permission.

According to St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin while living in a cave under the church in the 4th and early 5th centuries, mystery surrounds the building’s origins. He wrote that prior to the construction of the church, the site “where the infant Messiah once cried” had been a place of worship of Adonis, “the paramour of Venus”.

How President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem will affect Christmas celebrations is difficult to predict. There could also be fresh protests if a Saudi Arabia peace plan in which few settlements would be removed is adopted by Israel and America. No one is sure from where violence will come or where things are going. Peace seems more elusive than ever because it requires Israel to cede the territory which the settler movement has so tenaciously fought to control. But because of Trump, Nazareth is cancelling all Christmas celebrations.