But for the occasional Christian priest or veiled Muslim woman, it is impossible to determine the religion of passersby in the Bethlehem area.
Observers must rely on indirect hints: a portrait of Saint George above a doorframe points to a Christian owner. A picture of the Dome of the Rock shows that a Muslim built this house. And in taxis, a rosary or misbaha (Muslim worry beads) swinging from the rearview mirror is equally revealing.
While both Bethlehem and Beit Jala are first and foremost Palestinian, they were once almost entirely Christian towns. Both roughly maintain a 50:50 ratio of Muslims and Christians and a dominant Christian character. Here, churches are just as common as mosques, and the markets are as empty on Sundays as they are on Fridays.
There is no better place, then, to explore the relationship between Muslims and Christians in the ongoing Intifada and claims – mostly Israeli – that religious tensions are mounting and that Christians are being driven away for fear of Muslim persecution.
It is true that the Christian presence in Bethlehem and Beit Jala has been decreasing for decades, mostly due to emigration to the United States and Europe. The number of ” returnees” after 1995 when Bethlehem and parts of Beit Jala were put under Palestinian control has not yet been sufficient to reverse this trend.
“If peace can’t be achieved soon, there won’t be many Christians left here,” says Bishara Awad, himself a Palestinian Christian, albeit originally from Jerusalem.
Because of their comparatively higher degree of education and close contacts with Western countries (both resulting from the establishment of Western missionary schools in the area) more Christians leave Bethlehem and Beit Jala than do Muslims. Talking to Christians here, it appears that economic hardship and lack of trust in a peaceful and prosperous future are their main incentives for leaving the homeland.
Bishara Awad is the director of the Bethlehem Bible College, a theological school where local Christians are trained in ministry, church history or biblical languages. Bishara and his wife Salwa don’t believe that Palestine’s Muslims and Christians have different agendas.
“We fight together as Palestinians with the aim of achieving our independence and the end of the occupation. That the uprising has been termed the ‘Aqsa Intifada’ is not important,” says Bishara. “After all we are equally affected by what’s going on.”
There is little doubt about that. The Bethlehem Bible College has felt the affects of the heavy Israeli shelling. On the school building roof, the entire set of solar cells has been riddled with high-caliber artillery, as have the water tanks. Sixty-nine windows have been replaced on the grounds. In addition, a woman teacher is still recovering after being hit by shrapnel in an unprovoked attack just after the Easter holiday.
While he was studying in the United States, Awad’s identity papers designating him as a Jerusalem resident were revoked through laws requiring Palestinians to maintain residency in the city. Now the Israeli government forbids him from entering the holy city. Whenever Awad wants to attend a church service there, he has to sneak into his hometown.
“The Israelis,” says Awad, “have lost their humanity. Israel has become a God-less state. I have come to the conclusion that this state cannot be the land of Israel as promised in the Bible, because these can’t possibly be the Jews that God wished to bring together here.”
Both Bishara and Salwa say that there is no need for a religious interpretation of the Palestinian struggle. The Intifada is a revolt against the Israeli occupation with the goal of achieving independence and a viable state, they agree.
As Bishara Awad is talking about the gravity of the situation in Bethlehem, the doorbell rings. A driver for the Red Crescent Society has come to ask Awad to help out with some drugs and medicine. The supplies of the Muslim relief and first aid society are low and can’t be renewed easily because of the tight Israeli siege of the Bethlehem area.
Awad hands him two boxes of supplies. “This is how one has to picture our day-to-day life together,” he says, smiling. The struggle against occupation, it seems, is not subject to religious distinction.
“I see no difference between Christians and Muslims in the Intifada,” says Ibrahim Al Qarabi, a Muslim taxi driver from Beit Jala. He has lost a cousin in the shelling of his hometown.
“Religion shouldn’t be an issue,” agrees Zaki Baboun, a Christian painter from Bethlehem living in Beit Jala.
“It is only some radicals who perceive our common struggle to be religious,” says Muna Tamimi, a Christian English teacher from Bethlehem who is married to a Muslim.
But even as the vast majority of Palestinians see religious issues as separate from the fight against occupation, there are some people who have a different opinion.
Only a couple of blocks away from the Bethlehem Bible College, sits Ahmad Sufi, whose carefully-trimmed beard and stern eyes appear more aged than his 23 years. A Hamas affiliate and representative of the Islamic bloc in the student council of Al Quds Open University, Ahmad has helped to organize an exhibit in memory of those killed in the Palestinian uprising in the Bethlehem region and Hamas members serving sentences in Israeli prisons.
Among the features of the exhibit is a poster show: Ahmad and his colleagues have enlarged stills of Intifada scenes and inserted dialogue boxes. In one of them, a young boy is being arrested by Israeli soldiers. The scene is strikingly reminiscent of the first Intifada.
“May God curse you,” the bubble above the boy’s head reads, “for you have learnt nothing!”
Another room is graced with a symbolic martyr’s coffin under a tent of carefully-draped green Hamas flags. Nearby are the names of Bethlehem’s martyrs, among them that of German and Christian doctor Harald Fischer, who was killed in the shelling of Beit Jala on November 15th.
“The fight against the Israelis is a religious confrontation between Muslims and Jews,” explains Ahmad Sufi, standing next to a fake grenade launcher made of plastic. Asked what he thinks is the role of Palestine’s Christians, Sufi answers, “Just like the Christians fought alongside the Muslims under the command of Salah Eddin bin Al Ayyub against the Crusaders, we would like them to join our struggle today. They are our natural allies.”
That perspective can make Christians a little testy.
“This is as much our land as it is anybody else’s,” says Victor, a Christian from neighboring Beit Jala, who prefers not to mention his last name. “I know that some Muslims complain that not enough Christians have died in the Intifada so far,” he says, “but we do our share in the Intifada. On the whole we are just too few to stick out.”
Victor doesn’t like the Islamist notion that Christians are supposed to join the struggle as a support team. If the struggle for Palestine is defined as a religious one, he feels that Christians are being left out of the picture. “We are not Muslims, and we don’t want to be anybody’s auxiliaries,” Victor concludes.
In Beit Jala, the damage done by the Israeli army is even more devastating than in Bethlehem. An entire neighborhood of the town is not much more than skeletons of buildings burnt or riddled with artillery holes. For nearly half a year Israeli soldiers stationed in Gilo and Palestinian gunmen in Beit Jala have engaged in nightly exchanges of gunfire across the small valley separating them.
Even though no shooting incidents have taken place here for the past three weeks, nobody trusts the feeble ceasefire enough to return and renovate the destroyed structures. “Most of the former inhabitants are Christians,” says Victor pointing towards the ruins.
While everyday relationships between Muslims and Christians in Beit Jala remain undisturbed, there is a sense of irritation and misunderstanding among some Beit Jala Christians at the fate that has befallen them.
“The gunmen who shot at Gilo from here were no locals,” says Victor. “And they never asked anybody for permission to shoot from here.” Victor alludes to what many inhabitants here believe: that the gunmen of Beit Jala are mainly Muslims from neighboring villages.
But – Victor concedes without hesitation – he would be no less angry about this behavior if the gunmen had been Christians.
Nobody here is prepared, therefore, to accept the claims of Israeli officials such as Shmuel Avitar, the Israeli West Jerusalem mayor’s counselor on Christian affairs, who have alleged that President Yasser Arafat himself ordered militias to turn Beit Jala into an Intifada hotspot so that international Christian outrage at Palestinian Christian victims would enlarge his support base.
Palestinian Christians and Muslims both respond in anger to claims like these. “Israel has always, since the very beginning of the occupation, tried to divide the Christians and the Muslims of Palestine,” says Muna Tamimi. “I remember how Israeli soldiers would allow – in fact, force – Palestinian Christians to pass checkpoints and border crossings first, just so that the Muslims would get angry at us. But I don’t think the Israelis succeeded in that. It was too easy to detect their intentions.”
Generally, Christians and Muslims participate in the Intifada in identical or at least comparable ways. Protest marches organized by churches are common, and Muslims, in most cases, do not shy from taking part.
“The other day I came by the Church of Nativity, and I saw a Christian demonstration leave from there. Of course, I joined in,” relates Hamas activist Sufi, revealing that his daily life is shaped by pragmatism rather than ideology.
And Christian Victor also confesses to regularly taking part in Hamas – organized demonstrations, although he says he would feel uncomfortable displaying a cross or an icon of Jesus Christ among the Muslim banners and portraits of Muslim leaders like Hizballah cleric Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah.
There are no statistics available on the casualties of Christians and Muslims in the Intifada. It appears, however, that the fact that no one has cared enough to divide the martyrs in that way speaks for itself.
In another part of the Intifada struggle, Christians tend to use their historic links in the West to further support for the Palestinian cause, while Muslims, albeit not exclusively, focus on evoking support from the Muslim world.
Are the Palestinians as united, then, as they claim? Or have the misunderstandings in Beit Jala, the religious zeal of some activists and the Israeli strategy of divide-and-rule taken their toll?
One cannot help but think of Europe and the Balkans, in particular, which is busy fighting inter-religious confrontations. As such, Palestine qualifies as a country with only mild-antireligious disputes.
“Christians and Muslims alike face the challenge of interpreting the struggle in the most effective and support-evoking way,” says Muna
Tamimi. “Sometimes these concepts contradict each other, but we are still united by our aims. And, moreover, our different rhetoric or approaches are never directed against each other.”