Bethlehem has two faces, and both are on display at this time of year.
One is a living Christmas tableau: Pilgrims from all over the world duck through the low stone doorway to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born, to pray in its candlelit recesses. Tour buses idle in Manger Square, carolers sing in the streets, and inflatable red Santas bob outside rows of souvenir shops.
But in the other Bethlehem - an economically struggling, mainly Muslim city of 50,000 people in the West Bank - Christmas will be just another day. In its stonecutting sheds and refugee camps, mosques and market streets, workaday life is little affected by the holiday hue and cry.
Holiday tourism is easily Bethlehem’s largest source of revenue - about 5,000 visitors are expected on Christmas Eve and thousands more on Christmas Day - but the town’s homegrown Christian character is rapidly eroding.
Half a century ago, 80 percent of its Palestinian residents were Christian; now only about one-third are. At morning, noon and night, the wailing Muslim call to prayer mixes with the cracked-tone pealing of Bethlehem’s church bells.
On an unpaved back street just off Manger Square, Palestinian shoppers picked their way around open manholes toward market stalls selling eggs and vegetables. At Rez Roab’s shop, live chickens and turkeys clucked feebly in stacks of crates, and freshly plucked and cleaned birds hung from meat hooks.
“Well, we don’t get tourists buying these,” Roab said, gesturing with his cleaver. “We sell a little more to restaurants at this time of year, but altogether, Christmas doesn’t really make that much of a difference to me.”
In the Aida refugee camp - one of three camps ringing Bethlehem - the mood was grim and sullen. Six weeks ago, one of the camp’s children, 8-year-old Ali Jawarishe, was shot in the forehead with a rubber bullet as a group of boys threw stones at Israeli soldiers manning a post just up the hill from the camp.
Ali lingered for five days before being removed from life support. His funeral set off a daylong stone-throwing clash between camp residents and Israeli troops that left at least 16 people hurt.
“Christmas, not Christmas, our life is the same - hard, very hard,” Hanan Elayan, 37, a Palestinian mother of 10, said as she leaned against the wall of her home.
Since the death of Ali, whose family lives nearby, she worries constantly about her children getting hurt. “I tell them all the time not to go near the soldiers, but they don’t listen,” she said.
On Bethlehem’s gritty industrial fringe, stonecutter Ali Ahmed Zeitun, 33, took a break from his labors, his eyelashes and eyebrows coated with white stone dust. Stacked in the yard outside were huge slabs of so-called Jerusalem stone, the characteristic yellow-pink limestone used for nearly all the city’s buildings.
“Everything’s the same for me, with my job, no matter what time of year,” he said, rubbing his heavily callused hands. “I’m glad to have work - lots of people here don’t.”
Zeitun will close his shop on Christmas Day, he said - not for holiday observances, but because traffic jams will make it too difficult to truck stone in or out of town.
This is Bethlehem’s third Christmas under Palestinian rule, and Christmas celebrations still take on a note of nationalistic pride. In Manger Square, plastic banners bearing Palestinian flags and likenesses of Yasser Arafat flutter in the breeze.
Amid general gloom about the faltering Mideast peace process, Christians and Muslims alike were glad of a chance to celebrate something. Elayan said she would try to take her children to the festivities in Manger Square, even though the family is Muslim.
“It’s something nice for them, a way for them to enjoy themselves. They won’t have that here.”
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