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Christmas is cause to ponder
Bethlehem's rich history

December 25, 1995
Web posted at: 8:45 a.m. EST (1345 GMT)

From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- Sprawling over a southern Judean hillside, Bethlehem is receiving its annual parade of Christian pilgrims.

Bethlehem locater

The town is perched literally on the edge of the desert that, while wondrous for inward reflection, provides no major natural attributes. Through the centuries, faith and spiritual pull, not political allegiance were Bethlehem's major calling card. Its name translates as "House of Bread," a testament to its humble origins.

In the Middle Ages, two crusader kings were crowned in the "little town," and although from then on for another millennium the rulers were nearly always non-Christian, the town has been central in the lives of the world's truly indigenous Christians.

The walled city is best known to Westerners as the birthplace of Jesus, a statement disputed among historians. Bethlehem is recognized as the biblical birthplace of David, the shepherd boy who became the Bible's most famous King. But as for Jesus, only two of the four gospels, Luke and Matthew, specifically cite Bethlehem as the place he was born.

"Bethlehem was in fact an embarrassment for the early Christians because it means that Jesus was identified as a warrior messiah, which was precisely what he was not," said Yadin Roman, editor of Eretz Magazine. "There were many priestly messiahs. If they were going to invent anything, they would have him born in Jerusalem, for example, and have him named a messiah there. That's why I don't believe for a minute that they would have invented a birth in Bethlehem." (306K AIFF sound or 306K WAV sound)

Just how the holy family made their way from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the scriptures don't say.

Rev. O'Connor

"You have to look at the geography in the time of Jesus. Through Samaria you couldn't go. Jews just didn't go there. You had to go through the areas inhabited by Jews. If you go through Galilee to Jerusalem, you go (a much greater distance) along the Jordan river."

-- Rev. Jerome Murphy O'Connor,
Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem

The journey as O'Connor traces it, would have continued through the desert to the famous grotto that has been enshrined from the third century onwards as the definitive place of the miracle birth.

Church of Nativity

The Church of the Nativity built over the grotto has been the central shrine from the time that Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the year 312, and it remains the focal point of the town, and of a faith.

The original church was destroyed. Its successor, erected by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century, has remained intact, surviving successive invasions and rulers, many hostile to Christianity.

"For once the Christians showed tolerance," Roman said. "Muslims are permitted to pray in the south aisle. That is the aisle closest to Mecca, and of course they protected it as a place they could pray in comfort. It's a symbol of tolerance and it shows the benefit of tolerance because this is the only sixth century church that remained intact."

"One of the unique characteristics of the Palestinians is that since the time of Jesus Christ we are here as Arab Christians and we are still here," said Gerias Khoury of Bethlehem's A-Lika Institute. "So our continuous presence and our continuous attachment to this holy city makes the city very important for us as Christians."

The city also is important to Palestinians who received authority over the city this month when the Israeli military pulled out. Along with the traditional Christmas decorations, one among the bevy of welcoming banners that adorn Manger Square this year reads: "Greetings to the birthplace of the Jesus, the first Palestinian revolutionary".

With the transition, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij is looking to the future.

"Bethlehem should prepare itself for the celebrations of Christmas and the birth of our lord Jesus Christ in the year 2000," Freij said. "I call upon all churches, all people of goodwill, all mayors in the world to change the face of Bethlehem, to make it look like a bride." (204K AIFF sound or 204K WAV sound)

But right now this Christmas, with the convergence of Palestinian nationalist aspirations and traditional Christian devotion, the small hillside town has plenty with which to cope.

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