Hopes and fears of Christians play out across the region

Brutality and bureaucracy prevents many worshippers from following their faith

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa is greeted by a crowd as he arrives in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. / AFP / HAZEM BADER
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Israel's use of work and travel permits to control the Palestinian population in the West Bank is a year-round exercise in psychological harassment that puts lives and livelihoods at the mercy of a bureaucrat's stamp. But it is at this time of year, when the system is used to deny pilgrims access to a site central to their faith, that the perverse and arbitrary nature of the permit regime becomes most apparent. Bethlehem is a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Christians from around the world, who come together at Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus and worship at the Church of the Nativity. Yet for the estimated 1,100 Palestinian Christians who live on the Gaza Strip, access to one of the holiest sites in Christendom is dependent on a lottery that has seen more than 100 worshippers banned this year from making the short but all-important journey. Many have family in Bethlehem, from whom they are separated for much of the year.

To prevent reunions at Christmas is a particularly heartless form of the bureaucracy to which Palestinians have become wearily resigned. The permit system, by which thousands who travel to work in Jerusalem are constantly under threat of losing their livelihoods, is matched in cruelty by the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. They perpetuate a vicious circle of economic uncertainty and increase Arab-Israeli tensions. But beyond the day-to-day misery the permit system imposes, this exercise in social engineering has deeper consequences for a region central to the faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In serving to erode Gaza’s Christian community, the permit regime is undermining the historic cultural plurality of the region and tearing apart a rich social fabric woven by centuries of tolerance and interfaith harmony.

A similar Christmas story is unfolding in Arbin, Syria, some 240 kilometres northeast of Bethlehem. Here, the war-scarred Greek orthodox church of St George stands in mute testimony not only to the destruction wrought in the battle by the Syrian regime to retake the region, but also to the ease with which centuries of peaceful co-existence can be destroyed. Before Syria's war, Arbin was home to 3,000 Christians. Today, their homes lie in ruins and only a handful have dared to return to try to pick up the pieces. They have found a shattered and silent church that until 2012 had echoed every Christmas for generations to the sounds of joyous worship. For those in Arbin and the West Bank, and wherever religious intolerance is inflicted, there will be a particularly painful resonance in the words of a Christian hymn written by an American priest in 1865: "O little town of Bethlehem ... the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight".