When visiting the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, especially at
Christmastime, is it best to:
A. Kneel worshipfully at the manger's site and touch it reverently, as millions of people have done through the centuries? (This is a picture of the manger site that I took in October.)
B. Approach the altar of the Church of the Nativity, built over the manger site, and pray or meditate silently.
C. Get into a fistfight with other Christians over the custodianship of the church.
I mean, WWJD, yes?
If you answered, "C," then step to the head of the line.
Seven people were injured on Thursday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Following the Christmas celebrations, Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church, which is built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.
But the ladders encroached on space controlled by Armenian priests, according to photographers who said angry words ensued and blows quickly followed.
For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.
A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but two of them were also injured in the unholy melee.
Click this pic to see video of the fight.
National Geographic has an article this month on Bethlehem. It mentions the contentiousness over "every square foot" of the Church of the Nativity.
The Christians themselves are not immune to infighting. Literally every square foot of the Church of the Nativity is battled over by the three sects that share use of theYes, I am sure Jesus is so proud.
church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox.
The holy men of the three denominations bicker over who gets to clean which sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The guards in the church, it sometimes seems, are not there to protect tourists but to keep priests from attacking each other. "Apart from Christ," says Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan friar who served in the Church of the Nativity for 12 years, "there have been few here who would turn the other cheek."
Apart from that, though, the Geographic's piece seems fairhanded, based on what I learned there. And it does explain the plight of the Christians, although its numbers are off. My studies showed that the percentage of Christians living in Bethlehem was never as high (since World War II, anyway) as the 90 percent the article says; it was between 70-80 percent. And today the percentage of Christians is down to no more than 15 percent (and likely less than 10 percent), rather than the 30 percent the article claims. Also, the article does not relate the fact that Christians there and in the rest of the Palestinian areas are strongly persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. Even murder is not unusual, and the Palestinian Authority does not investigate.
(Fuggitaboudit in Gaza, controlled by Hamas.) More routine is property confiscation or destruction or coerced emigration. The week before my group arrived, 300 Palestinian Christian families were forced to leave their home in and near Bethlehem. They were simply thrown out of their houses and told that for their safety they'd better get out of town.
Together, the fighting at the Church of the Nativity (not by far the first time it's happened) and the Geographic article show that all religion is volatile in Israel and surrounds, in fact, throughout the whole Middle East. Peace shall not come easily there.