Frontline: Bethlehem - O little town of bickering

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The Independent Online
YASSER ARAFAT, a devout Muslim, hymned it as the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. Bill Clinton came seeking salvation and a First Family photo-op. But the little West Bank town of Bethlehem is on a front line within a front line within a front line, the confrontation zones between Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Rome and Byzantium.

You feel the tension first as you drive in from Jerusalem, five miles away. Armed Israeli troops man a checkpoint. "Prepare all documents," admonishes a sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The queue of vehicles is longer coming out than going in.

Rachel's Tomb, much frequented by barren women yearning for children, looks more like a fortress these days than a biblical shrine. After Israel evacuated Bethlehem just before Christmas three years ago, the tomb remained under Jewish control, but on the fringe of Palestinian territory. The army built a mock-Herodian bastion and posted more soldiers.

Whenever angry young Palestinians want to resurrect the intifada, this is the arena. Rachel's Tomb, where the road forks left into Bethlehem, is their front line.

The Palestinian police man no checkpoints. Across the divide, it is as if Bethlehem has written off Christmas 1998. Manger Square, once the world's most sacred car park, looks more like the world's most sacred building site. This year has been mortgaged to the millennium.

"Two thousand years ago," boasted the mayor, Hanna Nasser, "a turning point in history took place here." To mark and market the anniversary, the Palestinian Authority is spending $130m (pounds 78m) of worldwide donations on a facelift. Manger Square is being paved and landscaped, long neglected roads resurfaced. "They'll be lucky if they're finished by 2500," said my Arab driver.

An oppressive stone and cement police station, built by the British in 1938 and manned successively by British, Jordanian and Israel occupiers, has been replaced by a huge hole in the ground. A Nativity museum and peace centre is planned for the site.

Hotels and hostels are going up for the 3 million pilgrims expected between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001. "Bethlehem," said the mayor, a Catholic businessman, "should be a Mecca for Christians."

The irony was deliberate. Bethlehem is a Christian holy city with a growing Muslim majority. Mr Nasser acknowledged that 65 per cent of his 30,000 citizens are Muslims, only 35 per cent Christians.

The sixth-century Church of the Nativity at one end of Manger Square is echoed by a mosque at the other. Knowing which side Bethlehem's bread is buttered, the Palestinian Authority has decreed the mayor and deputy mayor will always be Christian.

"Christmas Message is Justice and Peace," proclaims a banner near Nativity Church. "Christ is the Saviour." It is signed: "Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement." Fatah, Yasser Arafat's power base, is renowned for many things, none of them pacifism or Christian piety.

Inside the church, the third front line is set in stone. It is no accident that midnight mass, televised around the world on Christmas Eve, is relayed not from the Emperor Justinian's Byzantine basilica but from a modern Catholic church built alongside it. In the Holy Land, sites spell status. The tug of war between the Catholic and Orthodox churches goes back at least as far as the Crusades.

"In an extraordinary display of tolerance," wrote the Dominican scholar Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor in his Oxford guide to the Holy Land, "the Crusaders and Byzantines co-operated in the restoration of the church between 1165 and 1169." Mutual tolerance has been hard to come by ever since.

A few years ago, when the Israelis still governed Bethlehem, rain started pouring through the 12th-century roof. It had been under dispute for a century after the Turks removed some of the lead for ammunition. The churches could not agree who should fix it.

At the request of the Armenians and Catholics, a Jewish official stepped in, hiring a Muslim contractor to coat the roof with white plastic. The Israeli taxpayer footed the pounds 30,000 bill. The Greeks registered their "dismay" at the intrusion.