Christmas Peace: O Little Town of Bethlehem

This morning’s Thought for the Day on the radio came live from Bethlehem.

I visited Bethlehem several years ago, during a brief lull in the troubles in Israel. I say a lull – the building opposite the hotel was mortared the day before we arrived, and there was a suicide bombing at the bus stop up the road a couple of weeks before. But compared to the times either side, it was fairly safe and peaceful when I was there. Even then it was obvious that there were problems – very few of the postcard views of Manger Square, the nearest road to the Church of the Nativity, show the machine gun posts on top of buildings. Inside the church is a little better – if you can ignore the fact that the church is divided up and shared between the various Christian denominations, each having their own little part laid out in their style. Sadly as soon as you leave the church buildings, the most dominant feature is a bunch of aggressive souvenir sellers.

But there’s more to Bethlehem than the birthplace of Jesus: The tour company I went with – who specialise in Christian tours – were keen that we should be more than religious tourists, so we were taken to visit an orphanage for blind children funded by an English charity – the idea being that some of us would sign up as sponsors. I must admit that I found it a bit cheesy and embarrassing, with the children being wheeled out to smile at us and sing a greeting song, before we were served tea and biscuits in the hall. It was good to see them well cared for, but the biggest impression made on me was when we saw how they’d have been living if the orphanage wasn’t there, as the coach drove through the streets of the town. It was like being in an episode of News at Ten, with bomb-damaged buildings, and vehicles from the United Nations charging around everywhere.

One day everyone will live in peace, but sadly I don’t see it being any day soon.

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