Bethlehem is a small city on a hill-top about 10 minutes' drive from Jerusalem. It is very old - certainly from the Bronze Age, and is famous in Hebrew Scriptures as King David's City, in the Gospels as the place where God entered human history and Jesus was born, and later, in Church history as the place where St Jerome lived and translated the Latin Vulgate in the 4th Century CE.
The Nativity Church built over the caves where 2,000 years of tradition hold that Jesus was born, was commissioned in 339 CE by Queen Helena and purports therefore to be the oldest continuously operating church in the world. Most of the other buildings of the Roman and Byzantine period are underneath the 16th century "Quarters", built for five major family clans, which are the charming residential and shopping streets we stroll through. Often the streets have steps going up or down on either side, looking out over terraced hills of olive, almond and apricot trees. The local stone is a warm, soft pink/white limestone. There are many churches and many mosques in Bethlehem - this is a city where Christian and Muslim have lived alongside one another in harmony for centuries, respecting each other's religious traditions.
Bethlehem may be small, but it is home to one of the world's oldest Christian populations and the global Church across time, with the Orthodox, Roman and Eastern Churches all sharing the same Arab Palestinian culture. Many liturgies are celebrated with chants from the earliest days of the Church, easily overheard through the open church doors as one walks by.
The souk (market) stretching through two Quarters is fascinating; huge displays of fruit, herbs and vegetables, small Aladdin's caves of shops with things hidden away; falafel stands (the original fast food?), kebabs, BBQ chicken, sweet and cake stalls, bakeries, restaurants - and above all - churches. The two or three modern, noisy roads with traffic are in stark contrast to the walking pace of the rest of the city.
Family, Food and Faith are the underpinning values of the culture, alongside current American and European influences introduced via television and the internet. In spite of the grim reality of living in a city ringed by a 26' wall and "settler only" roads people are unfailingly helpful, polite and generous. Staying in Bethlehem inspires one to marvel at the endurance of the human spirit and to share its warmth.
In 2005, when Della decided to spend Christmas in Bethlehem she wrote "It was a wonderful fortnight, meeting courteous, friendly helpful people only too happy to direct me to the Holy Places, to restaurants, shops - whatever I needed. I realized that to associate Bethlehem with terrorism and violence is completely undeserved. Respect and kindness are shown to visitors and especially to women; I felt safer walking around in Bethlehem than in many English cities".
And yet, beneath the warm hospitality - a Bethlehem Arab tradition stretching back over more than 2,000 years - and the sense of eternal hope - there is clear evidence that people are suffering. Military occupation is a humiliating experience for anyone, and for this dignified and educated people, doubly so. Economic hardship is draining, and for Bethlehemites, dependent on working and studying in Jerusalem 10 minutes' drive away, and used to making, buying and selling with the best of them, it is devastating now to live in an open-air prison unable freely to go beyond the wall. For the Christians, who normally speak at least two European languages and who form the majority in the Bethlehem area, the temptation to seek a better life abroad is often overwhelming - hence the steady exodus of Christian families to America, Chile, Europe and Australia.
What is more amazing is how many choose to stay. These are the "Living Stones" of Christianity in the Holy Land: beleaguered descendants of the first witnesses to the Incarnation. Their quest is for Christ's Peace to reign amongst all the people of this troubled land - Christian, Jew and Muslim. You leave feeling inspired, your spirits lifted, wanting to help and stand alongside these gently courageous people.