Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
I know I'm not the first (and I won't be the last) to comment on the irony of these words. Every year I've blithely sung the carol, not really thinking about Bethlehem as a real place - even though I knew it was. From the roof of our guest-house in Beit Sahour we could see the lights of Bethlehem. The 'little town' wasn't sleeping particularly quietly that night. There was the usual wail of sirens and honking of horns as well as the songs of the mosque's Immans. The town is not still and peaceful, it is encircled by a wall that cuts it off from the rest of the West Bank. Jerusalem, once a 30min drive away, is now unreachable without the correct permits. Outlying villages like Nu'aman and Khass are separated from the agricultural land that has provided the population's livelihood for generations.
The 38-day siege of Bethlehem in spring 2002 illustrated that even Christian holy sites were not protected from the conflict. Since the beginning of the 2nd intifada, and exacerbated by the siege, tourism to this town has dwindled. Many pilgrims are now dropped off by air conditioned coaches in Manger Square, spend an hour in the Church of the Nativity, then leave. Combined with the difficulty of having employment outside the wall and checkpoints, the society of Bethlehem is suffering loss of income and high unemployment.
Fortunately, there are again signs of hope for the future in this community. Bethlehem International Centre aims to encourage productivity, creativity and hospitality within the town.
There are several strands to its work, including:
- Training unemployed people in traditional Palestinian arts & crafts, equipping them with the tools, space etc to make their own products.
- Providing a space (the Cave) where artists can display and sell their work.
- Managing an 'authentic tourism' programme - encouraging tourists to experience 'real' Palestinian life in and around Bethlehem.
- Running a conference centre
- Bethlehem Media Centre, hosting film festivals and empowering Palestinians to tell their stories.
- Health & Wellness Centre, overcoming some of the problems connected with a lack of health care services within the Bethlehem area.
- 'Bright Stars' children's programme where they can discover & explore creative talents and sporting ability to give them a sense of pride and self-worth.
One of the founders of the centre, Father Raheb, didn't want to simply add to the mass of words that existed against the occupation, he wanted to do something productive that would be long-lasting. In the creation of facts - the existence & celebration of Palestinian culture; the increase in tourism; the equipping of the unemployed; the education & development of children & young people - hope is provided. His philosophy, which is shared by the centre, is that they should try and create room for hope in everything that they do.