Monday, May 31, 2010

Worship and Bethlehem Tourism

Impressions:Bright sunlight of a more luminescent quality than found in Denton
The Muslim call to prayer waking me up at 4 a.m. in the morning
Fresh cherries sold on the streets

Yesterday we worshipped at the Christmas Lutheran church with a German women's group, an American student group from Wisconsin, a Japanese group from Hiroshima, and of course the local Palestinian Lutherans. It certainly made for an international service, with four different languages spoken at some point during the service.

I was sitting in my pew, when I looked across at the pew on the other side, and lo and behold, who did I see there but Andreas. Andreas was a German coworker and roommate when I lived in Palestine, and he had just moved back to Bethlehem a few months ago to start working at the International Center of Bethlehem again after an absence of many years. I invited him to join the rest of our group as we went to one of my old familiar lunch haunts, where most of us had felafel, hummus, and/or schwarma (like gyros), more cheaply than we will likely find any other place on the trip.

Andreas trains the Palestinian tour guides and knows more about the situation than most people I know, even Palestinians. Andreas said the unemployment here in Bethlehem is over 50 percent. He also said the situation with tourism had become worse. Even when I lived here, most tourists to Bethlehem visited Bethlehem only to visit the Church of the Nativity, spending a little money in Palestinian tourist shops before returning to Israel. Now, according to Andreas, Israeli tourist groups made deals with Palestinian tour groups by which the tour guides would lead their groups only to certain tourist shops. While this benefits those few souvenir shops, the majority are left out of the financial equation. Furthermore, as a price of the deal, the Palestinian tour guides in Bethlehem are forbidden from saying anything about the occupation or the political situation. This prevents even those foreign tourists who come here from learning the story of what is really going on here.

According to Israeli law, it is illegal for Israelis to come to Palestinian areas in the West Bank such as Bethlehem. This means that our group has had more firsthand exposure to the reality of life here in Bethlehem than most Israelis will have in their lives. The Israeli government claims the reason for this law is security, and while I do not deny that there may be some security issues, the law also functions to isolate the Israelis from Palestinian reality. This only contributes to Israeli fears of the Palestinian "other." In practice, the law is used not so much to protect Israelis but to punish those Israelis interested in human rights.

I feel like I'm already behind on updating this blog. Today we had a tour of the International Center of Bethlehem, and heard from its director, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. We then visited one of the oldest churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity, parts of which date to the 4th century. I was surprised that our group even had the grotto to ourselves for several minutes.

Our late afternoon meeting with a Palestinian NGO was cancelled/postponed because of the incident off Gaza involving the Turkish ship. We are curious to see how this will further affect our trip.

I read a very good article today about the Gaza situation. Here it is:


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