Bethlehem, the barricaded city

There is a great barrier that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Although it is indeed possible to pass through its gates, visitors require a passport, and must submit to customs control. For many, however, it has become a wall of death. Bethlehem today has become a symbol of political unrest and human error.

The Bible describes Bethlehem as the city of David: “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?” (John 7: 42). Bethlehem today has an approximate population of 30,000 inhabitants and is located in Palestine’s West Bank. It is a city with a Christian history in a Muslim environment.

Differing traditions and mindsets

The Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ is the top destination for tourists from all over the world, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012. It is maintained—or rather, guarded—by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic Churches. And each organisation cares for it according to its own specific principles. What is beyond dispute for most Christians—namely that the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25th—cannot be taken for granted in the Church of the Nativity of the Lord in Bethlehem. In this place, the churches celebrate the event on three different days: the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass is broadcast around the globe by television on Christmas Eve. Greek Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, and thus celebrate the birth of Christ on January 6th. The Armenian Orthodox Church does not celebrate the festival until January 18th. A great deal of mutual understanding is required to make things work, but this is not always a given. For example, representatives of the three confessions frequently argue about who is allowed to clean which holy wall in the church or who is allowed to pass through which aisle. Ironically, the Church of the Nativity of the Prince of Peace has become a place of unrest.

A concrete wall covered in graffiti

Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian territory and is separated from the neighbouring state of Israel by an imposing barrier. This is not the old city wall around Jerusalem, but an eight-metre high—and heavily protected—concrete wall, erected by the state of Israel in 2002. On one side of the wall the people speak Hebrew, and on the other, they speak Arabic. On this side of the wall, people practise the Jewish faith, and on the other side people practise Islam.

The Israeli West Bank barrier or border wall or security fence—there are many names for the controversial structure—is a welcome showcase for graffiti artists such as Banksy. In all the colours of the rainbow, they express everything from their longing for freedom and political independence to war and retribution. Messages of hatred stand next to messages of love, expressions of revenge are juxtaposed with expressions of reconciliation. Anyone who wishes to get into the city has to drive through this wall and three iron gates.

In 1994 the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility for Bethlehem. At the time, the West Bank was home to approximately 50,000 Christians. Today that number has dwindled down to half. In those days it was also decided that the incumbent mayor of the city must be a Christian and belong to either the Greek Orthodox or the Roman Catholic Church. Since that time, some 100 mosques have been erected.

No rooms available

However, a two-thousand-year-old reality is still in effect today: there is no room available in Bethlehem at Christmas time! The hype already starts well before the actual holidays: the city is decorated for Christmas, garlands hang over the streets, and silver stars adorn the walls of many houses. A gigantic Christmas tree, which is brightly lit up at night, stands in front of the Church of the Nativity. In the alleys there is a multitude of souvenir shops that offer tourists their choice of keepsake from the Holy Land. The authorities estimate that around two million Christmas tourists come to visit every year.

Being New Apostolic in Israel

There is no New Apostolic congregation in the city of Jesus’ birth, but there is one in the city where He grew up and spent the majority of His life, namely in Nazareth. In fact, Nazareth plays host to the largest New Apostolic congregation in the entirety of the Holy Land. It numbers over 200 members. Throughout Israel there are seven congregations, namely Akko, Eliabun, Haifa, Maghar, Nazareth, Shefar’am, and Tel Aviv. Some 700 members are served by ten ministers, comprised of four Priests and six Deacons. Most of them—like the majority of the approximately 170,000 Christians in Israel—are Arab Christians.

An international District Apostle Meeting took place in Israel in 2012. The participants, who had come from all over the world, visited Nazareth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and other historical sites such as Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Jerusalem.

The divine service in Nazareth gave both local members and the visitors from other parts of the world some good thoughts to take home with them. In his sermon, the then Chief Apostle Wilhelm Leber made a statement that is still very relevant today: “Compare your present needs with the glory of the future, and then they will become a little lighter.” And the then District Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider went on to remark: “If you decide to quit, the Lord will have one less disciple!”

Photo: Paola Bertoni -

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Peter Johanning
Israel, Christmas