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Oh Little Town of Bethlehem Is An Open Air Prison.

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As we sing about Bethlehem this Christmas day, and retell the story about Joseph and Mary, and the birth of Jesus, we should not forget that The Church of the Nativity --- which was built over the manger where Christ was born --- is now surrounded by towering walls that have enraged Palestinian Christians and nearly extinguished the Christmas spirit in the Holy Land.

Not long ago 100,000 pilgrims used to make the trek to Manger Square in this Arab Christian city, the home of the first Christian church and the holiest place in Christendom.

Today 26-foot high walls have encircled and crippled this 4,000-year-old historic town, making it a virtual prison for 160,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians. 100,000 pilgrims are being shut out.

Up until 15 years ago, Bethlehem had a majority Christian population, Today, there are more Christian Palestinians in Sydney, Australia than there are in the high Holy Land for Christians.

Tourism and pilgrims are the major source of revenue for the city and now this revenue is all but ended, because of the Walls and security checkpoints that separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem - once a simple journey not more than 10 miles away.

The United Nations documented 78 physical obstacles, 10 military checkpoints, and 55 roadblocks surrounding Bethlehem.

The Christians of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem were once intimately connected through family, work, education and religion. Now no Bethlehem Christian is allowed to visit friends, family or even attend Bethlehem University, in nearby East Jerusalem.

"It is a shame that the international Christian community is silent toward what is happening... The Christian community is cowardly when it comes to Israel. These are harsh words but I think some people have to hear it." according to Reverend Mitri Raheb, International Center of Bethlehem.

Who pays for this wall? Most Americans don't realize it --- although Arabs certainly know --- that the US gives Israel $10 million per day, much of which goes to construction of this wall and the subsidizes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Israeli settlements continue to be built on West Bank lands around Bethlehem.

Pope Benedict XVI received the first Bethlehem Passport last year which is being used to publicize the plight and catastrophe that has befallen this small city. The Passport asks the bearer to "remain a true friend to Bethlehem though its imprisonment." Last Christmas the Pope asked the world to pray for "the birthplace of our Redeemer."

Today Mary, Mother of God, would never make it to Bethlehem. Baby Jesus might be born on the side of the road, in the shadow of a great wall, surrounded by Israeli soldiers. Likewise, the three kings would be undoubtedly be stopped by military forces, as they tried to follow their star to the manger. The residents say that Bethlehem has become ghettoized.

The issue has been ignored in this country by fundamentalist Christians and by the MSM. But it has received much attention in Ireland, England, and the rest of Europe. One Anglican Church in England has decided to replace a live Nativity scene for a replica of the wall encircling Bethlehem in protest of the Israeli separation barrier.

"It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation," pleaded Dr. Desmond Tutu.

What would Jews say if the Temple Mount was walled off? What would Muslims say if pilgrims could not go to Mecca?

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see the lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

jfleetwood@aol.com