The Christmas story must be the most famous story ever told. The story of a very young girl – heavily pregnant, afraid, anxious – travelling a long distance to fulfil legal requirements and wondering what might happen next.
Considered unclean because she is pregnant, this teenage mother is forced to share a stable with the animals. After giving birth, her young family are then forced out of their country for fear of violence and become refugees in a foreign land. The birth of Jesus bears no resemblance to the romanticised picture of perfect cribs, Christmas card pictures and the carols we know so well.
Jesus was born into a political storm. The Roman Empire occupied Palestine and the local people felt like refugees and foreigners in their own land. Some accepted the situation while others wanted an uprising to root the enemy out.
This scenario was played out over 2,000 years ago and sadly not much has changed. For the Christians living in Bethlehem today, life for them is just as fragile as it was when their most famous resident was born. Christians of the Holy Land are today living under occupation and have been since the 1940s.
In 1948, the population of Bethlehem was 85% Christian and 13% Muslim. Today the relationship is reversed: the Christian population represents less than a third of Bethlehem's 31,500 inhabitants. The reason is the exodus of many Christians and the arrival of Palestinian Muslim refugees from wars with Israel. The sad fact is that in our lifetime we could see this town, cradle to our faith, having no Christians living there.
The situation is bleak and people see no signs of improvement. Cultural and religious suffocation in a majority Muslim city, persecution and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are some of the reasons. Christians truly feel they are living in an open prison.
Surrounding Bethlehem is an 8m (26ft) concrete wall which envelops and separates the town from the outskirts of Jerusalem. To enter and leave Bethlehem, everyone must pass through the wall. For pilgrims and tourists it is easy; for the locals it is long and tiresome. For pilgrims and tourists, passing through the wall has become part of the tourist attraction; for the locals it has become part of daily life.
The few Palestinians who work outside Bethlehem enter Jerusalem via 'Checkpoint 300'. They arrive early in the morning, hours before the gate opens, with many not returning home to their families until after 10pm. I have walked through this checkpoint and have witnessed the harsh reality of this daily routine. This is the daily life which many face to work and support their families. They are the lucky ones as Bethlemites are not allowed through the wall without a permit, which can take many months to apply for and which may be granted only for a specific reason.
The wall has divided families. People can face humiliation and there is no guarantee that their applications will even be successful. The wall has now become an international symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israel and even Banksy has made his famous mark. Olive-wood crib sets are on sale depicting the wall; the abnormal becomes the normal. If the wall had been built at the time of the nativity, Mary and Joseph would never have reached Bethlehem and Jesus would have been born on the road.
There are parts of the Bethlehem area which still look like a scene straight from the pages of scripture: olive trees, donkeys, ancient hills. You can almost imagine shepherds watching their flocks by night, as shepherd boys lead their sheep to graze. Sadly this is quickly disappearing under waves of concrete as the wall is still under construction
Surrounding Bethlehem are Israeli settlements, illegal under international law and built on Palestinian land. The Israeli settlement of Gilo is home to 40,000 people and Har Gilo houses a further 20,000. Both settlements are built on Bethlehem land and a new settlement is planned, which will sit in the middle of the two existing ones. Israel considers these settlements to be legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem and the Israeli government has announced further expansions.
The impact of these settlements on the Bethlehem people and especially on the Christian population is devastating. Land belonging to Christian families which has been in their possession for centuries has been confiscated. Ancient olive trees, apricots and vines have been uprooted and destroyed. With the destruction of land comes the destruction of people's lives. Christians are leaving because there is no livelihood and no future.
Local Christians are also afraid of Islamic fundamentalists. They are not afraid of living with Muslims but of outside influences: Daesh (the self-styled Islamic State or ISIS), Al Nusra (the Sunni offshoot of al-Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon), and the fanatic fundamentalist groups. They are afraid that this influence may secure a place in the heart of the people.
We need our Christian brothers and sisters to stay in the town because they serve as an important link to the origins of our faith. The Christians of the Holy Land have a vocation to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. Their presence in the land is vital.
When speaking of Arabs, we think almost always of Muslims; and when speaking of Israel, we think of the Jews. In the middle are the Christians who do not fall into this framework. They are not a nationality but they belong to Jesus Christ. Their vocation is to be a bridge between the other two faiths and to mark the difference with the values which are at the heart of Christianity: fraternity, love, service.
The Holy Land Christian must become steeped in these biblical and universal values and transmit them to others as a beacon and an example to follow. This vocation is hard because Christianity is the minority and there are times when they feel the world has forgotten them. We must treasure their presence and their witness, a witness that can be traced right back to that birth in Bethlehem. It is our duty to encourage and help them to fulfil this vocation.
How? We must raise awareness of the challenges the Christians experience every day. We must keep in our daily prayer our brothers and sisters and give thanks to God for them and their vocation. Pray for the 'peace of Jerusalem'. Go on pilgrimage, meet the local people, visit Christian communities and celebrate the witness that they offer. Support our archdiocesan Christmas Card campaign which is organised by the Justice and Peace Commission and means that hundreds of Christmas cards are sent by our parishes to Catholic parishes in the Holy Land each year. Support financial projects, many of which help the Christians to invest in their future.
But when you look into the Christmas crib in your homes and churches over the coming weeks, when you sing those well-known carols and celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember the reality that people are facing today: the reality which many of the trappings of our Christmas do not show and yet which is clearly, and sadly, there.
Leyakon maakom salam el Maseeh ebn Beit Lahem fe had el eid el majeed
May the peace of the Child of Bethlehem be with you this Christmas