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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 December 2005, 09:24 GMT
Bethlehem's Christians cling to hope
As part of the BBC News website's series on Christians in the Middle East, Heather Sharp talks to Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem about the economic hardships they endure and the political uncertainty they face in the future.

Nasim Bannoura [left] with one of his daughters in front of their Christmas tree in Bethlehem
Nasim says now he can barely afford to feed his children
There will be no Christmas presents in Nasim Bannoura's house this year.

The Palestinian Christian lives minutes from a site where, according to tradition, angels told shepherds of the birth of Jesus.

But he can barely afford to feed his two teenage children, let alone buy them gifts. In recent years they have gone to bed hungry "many times", he says.

A carpenter, like Jesus' father Joseph, he has had little work for the five years of the Palestinian intifada.

Curfews, closures and the newly-built West Bank barrier have cut him off from business in Jerusalem.

Fears of violence have kept the tourists away and with them the financial lifeblood of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, a few minutes drive from Nasim's home in the town of Beit Sahour.

Economic woes

Louis Michel is a licensed Palestinian tour guide, fluent in French and English.

I believe we should stay to challenge the occupation, not emigrate and let the Israelis take our land
Palestinian Christian Khalil Hanania

Before the intifada, his tour groups had to queue two or three hours to enter the underground grotto held to mark the site of the birth of Jesus.

Now pilgrims walk straight in.

In the last few days, he says, only about five families have paid for his services.

Louis' life savings are long spent and his three children all sleep in one room.

But, he says, tourist numbers have increased a little this year, and he repeats the mantra echoing from the Ministry of Tourism to the souvenir shops: "We hope more will come this Christmas."

Although the dire economic situation has affected Christians and Muslims alike, emigration from Bethlehem is higher among Christians, who are helped by higher levels of education and better contacts in Western countries.

Catholic civil engineer Khalil Hanania, 22, was part of a close-knit group of seven friends at school.

"Now I am alone, six of my best friends emigrated - America, London, Australia, France," he says.


But, despite seeing two university friends killed during the intifada, he is committed to staying.

Khalil Hanania
Despite losing friends to emigration and the intifada, Khalil wants to stay
"I believe we should stay to challenge the occupation, not emigrate and let the Israelis take our land - especially as we are living in the land of Jesus. It's a gift from God, although we suffer," he says.

But others simply want out. "If I had a job offer, I would like to leave and never look back," says Randa Dallal.

After losing a grocery business during the first intifada and cowering in a basement at the height of second, she says now the worst thing is "the feeling that I am in prison" because of the barrier and Israeli travel restrictions.

As Christmas approaches, her 17-year-old son Sari checks daily for the arrival of his permit to travel 20 minutes' drive to East Jerusalem to see his sister on Christmas Eve.

"We're a minority and every year there are less and less. The younger generation, if they leave to study, will not return," she says.

There are also mixed feelings among Christians about the Palestinian uprising and the radical Islamic groups behind it.

"This intifada has bad results for all. I think things have gone back 50 years. The Muslims support it more," says Christian souvenir shop owner Peter Canavati.


Elections this year have seen Hamas take five of the 15 seats on Bethlehem's city council.

George Sa'adeh holds a picture of his late daughter, Christine
George Sa'adeh considers his daughter a martyr to the Palestinian cause
If support for such groups continues to increase, says another Christian souvenir seller, "we will feel like tourists here."

A few Christians speak privately of harassment, Muslims seizing Christian land and the fear of speaking out against radical groups.

But many others say they live like brothers with their Muslim neighbours, sharing the struggle against Israeli occupation.

George Sa'adeh is the deputy mayor of Bethlehem and principal of a Greek Orthodox high school in nearby Beit Sahour.

His 12-year-old daughter Christine was killed in 2003. Israeli forces targeting Hamas militants opened fire on his car by accident, he says.

He considers her a martyr for the Palestinian cause.

"We believe Christine is an angel now," he says.

"We get on with our life, but it's not easy. We are all human beings - Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Losing a child is the same pain for all of us."

Mr Sa'adeh says the Palestinian Authority designates that the mayor and deputy mayor of Bethlehem must be Christian and points out that the new council make-up is the outcome of a democratic process.

"Bethlehem is a symbol of co-existence," he says.

Hoping for pilgrims

Tensions remain, however. On Tuesday, with only four days to go until the all important Christmas Eve mass, masked gunmen swept into the city hall as local officials gathered to open a Christmas bazaar a few streets away.

We hope tourists will come and see that Bethlehem is a nice, safe place
Souvenir seller Peter Canavati
For a jittery hour the gunmen occupied the roof of the building while armed Palestinian security forces gathered in the square below - a scene unusual for Bethlehem, although not uncommon elsewhere in the West Bank.

The episode was reportedly a dispute over unpaid salaries within Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah party.

But a few Christian onlookers were quick to interpret it as a Muslim-driven plan to sabotage Christmas in Bethlehem.

By far the main concern, however, was not who was behind it, but whether the television pictures would scare off pilgrims.

"It will hit us hard," said souvenir seller Peter Canavati.

"But we hope tourists will come and see that Bethlehem is a nice, safe place. We hope that they will come."

Heather Sharp is in Israel and the West Bank on a research visit funded by the Alexander Onassis Trust.

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