With a sense of connection, Bethlehem awaits the pope

Hopes are expressed for peace process

March 22, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- This biblical birthplace of Jesus where Pope John Paul II will celebrate today the first Mass of his West Bank pilgrimage is just a 20-minute cab ride from downtown Jerusalem. But it is a world apart.

Bethlehem is a town of 30,000 on a hill on the West Bank, south of Jerusalem. Controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority since 1995, its population is mostly Muslim, with a dwindling number of Arab Christians. On its outskirts is the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp, which the pope will visit this afternoon.

Bethlehem struggles with a 20 percent unemployment rate and survives principally on tourism from pilgrims. The town center is known as Manger Square. Many residents craft olive wood rosaries and manger scenes or mother of pearl trinkets. Others work in restaurants or food stands, or sell postcards and bottles of water.

At the time of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem inhabitants could travel easily to Jerusalem. Today, most cannot go there. They are prohibited from passing through an Israeli checkpoint outside town without a permit.

Palestinians hope that the pope's visit here will advance their cause.

"We hope his visit will enhance the peace process now taking place between Palestinians and Israel," said Bethlehem's mayor, Hanna Nasser, an Arab Roman Catholic. "We are proud he is coming. His visit is a gesture of solidarity, not just for Christians here, but for all the Palestinian people."

Jalil Juha, finishing a meal at his father's restaurant, St. George, on Manger Square, site of today's papal Mass, says he senses optimism among fellow Palestinians about Pope John Paul's visit.

"I doubt he'd become involved politically," said Juha, "but I'd hope he'd urge people to work harder for peace and to pray for peace. After all, this is the Holy Land, and it's supposed to be the land of peace. And there's no peace here."

For Christians, Bethlehem is revered as the birthplace of Jesus, the place where God became man, and it is on the incarnation that Pope John Paul will likely focus.

The focal point of Christian devotion in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto believed to be the Jesus' birthplace. Like most Christian sites in the Holy Land, the church is divided -- in this case among Catholics and Greek and Armenian Orthodox.

Biblical scholars say evidence is convincing that the site is authentic. The Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Dominican priest and biblical scholar living in Jerusalem, says Christians revered the grotto as early as the second century, lending credence to its status as Christ's birthplace. The church, built in the fourth century, is the oldest Christian church in continuous operation.

"This has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians from the earliest times," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who is here to witness the pope's visit.

Entrance is through a low door, shortened in the 16th century to prevent Muslim invaders from riding horses in or taking loot-laden carts out.

There is usually a long line to enter the grotto, where a 14-point bronze star on the floor under an altar marks the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Pilgrims fall to their knees and crawl under the altar to kiss the star.

Bethlehem is a town that knows how to stage an extravaganza, witnessed each year at its Christmas Mass.

Residents say that is nothing compared with the preparations for today. On a building facing the stage where Pope John Paul will celebrate Mass is a huge banner, "Bethlehem Municipality welcomes His Holiness John Paul II," with an Arabic translation beneath. Strings of small papal and Palestinian flags criss-cross the square, fluttering in the breeze.

On the road to town, workers have raised arches through which the papal motorcade will pass. A multilevel garage has been built for tourist buses, which clog the road to Manger Square. Millions of dollars have been spent in the Bethlehem 2000 public improvement effort.

But for the faithful, more important than the physical preparations is the spiritual nexus that is Bethlehem.

Coming to Bethlehem creates "a feeling of connecting to the beginning," Keeler says. "Here is the manifestation of Jesus come among us, the Word made flesh. We're coming back to the source, coming back to our roots."

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