Modern Bethlehem story: unemployed Message: A shepherd tending his flock speaks of a poor economy. His four sons don't have jobs.

December 24, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT SAHUR, West Bank -- In the village of the shepherds, Mahmoud Zawahreh lounges under an olive tree. His herd of goats forages for food on the rocky slopes of a green land where long ago a savior was born.

In a field not so far away, Christian tradition holds that an angel brought "good tidings of great joy" to shepherds tending their flocks on a starry night about 2000 years ago near Bethlehem. The Christmas story is not Zawahreh's to tell. Like most of the few modern-day shepherds and goatherds left on these stone-studded hills, Zawahreh is a Muslim.

But his message suits the season in this not-so-peaceful land.

"Muslims, Christians, Jews -- we are all the sons of Adam and Eve," says the 68-year-old retired stonemason, an Arab headdress wrapped about his head, a gnarled staff in his hand.

Zawahreh lives in nearby Bethlehem. When he returns home tonight, revelers will be filling the streets. On Christmas Eve, this town is rarely still. In years past, this city of 35,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs convenes one big block party that features dancing Santas and gospel choirs.

It is a city of kitsch and commercialism where merchants hawk inflatable St. Nicks, olive-wood creches and artificial Christmas trees. But pilgrims come by the busload to touch the silver star in a stone cave believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Tonight in the Church of the Nativity, Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, will celebrate the traditional midnight Mass. In attendance will be Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Two years ago, Israel turned over Bethlehem to the control of the Palestinians as part of the 1993 peace accords.

'Life is not that good'

The faltering peace process has turned this once tourist-driven city into a waiting room for the unemployed. Shepherd Zawahreh speaks of the city's ills.

"Life is not that good," he says, the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. "My four sons don't work. Nobody makes money."

In the past year, Palestinians' frustration with Israel's pace in carrying out portions of the peace agreement has erupted in the streets of Bethlehem, as elsewhere. Outbreaks occurred at the Tomb of Rachel, fortified recently with a hulking concrete wall and guarded by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian youths hurl stones at the soldiers who respond with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

A bomb-making factory has been uncovered in Beit Sahur, this nearby village named in honor of the shepherds in the Christmas story.

Just yesterday, Israeli defense forces arrested four suspected terrorists in Bethlehem -- the announcement coming hours before the lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square.

The clashes, suicide bombings in nearby Jerusalem and Israeli-enforced closures have kept tourists away. Business has plummeted.

"This is a reflection of the policy in the area," said Awni Shabat, as he stood outside an empty tourist shop down the road from Shepherd's Field.

Shabat left Beit Sahur as a child after Israel's victory in the 1967 war. He grew up in Kuwait and lived there until his return in 1992. "I am glad to be in my homeland," he said. "But the economic situation puts us in a difficult life."

50% unemployment

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser puts the number of unemployed at 50 percent. Other demographics have changed in the city. Thirty years ago, Christians outnumbered Muslims by a 3-to-1 majority. Today, the skyline offers a different picture -- the minarets of 72 mosques punctuate the horizon. In 1970, there were only five.

A recent report by the Israeli government claimed that Christians were being persecuted in Bethlehem. But church leaders and city officials, including Bethlehem's Roman Catholic mayor, denounced the report as propaganda aimed at embarrassing the Palestinian authority.

The city prefers to focus on the turn-of-the-century celebration to commemorate the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth. It is a grand plan with a mega-million-dollar price tag that may bring Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. The city hopes the festivities will herald Bethlehem's rebirth.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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