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Rafique Gangat
 
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Christmas in Bethlehem

28 December 2010, 07:30  - Rafique Gangat
South Africans may generally perceive Bethlehem with reference to the idyllic scenes depicted on postcards and Christmas greetings – yet the reality is so much different.

On an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve with clear blue skies, different from the regular cold and snow of the past, I drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, its cultural and spiritual sister city, but nowadays cut-off by the "separation wall".

The single entrance to the town of Bethlehem is heavily fortified and manned by Israeli soldiers, who after a long and frustrating wait, permit me to drive into the town.

The entrance is caught between two walls; one that cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements surrounding it and another towering wall around Rachel's Tomb, a few hundred meters along the town's main road.

Bethlehem is a West Bank Palestinian town and Palestinian Christians and Muslims live there. Most locals I spoke to, feel "imprisoned by the separation wall". The town generally has a look and feel of a previously thriving place that is slowly recovering after having suffered economic ruin - a consequence of the recent intifada (Israeli/Palestinian conflict).

Nevertheless, because of the current relative peace and quiet, Bethlehem was this Christmas season anticipating a return to better times and from the busloads of tourists driving in with me, it seemed that things were indeed turning around.

I couldn’t help but observe that the Israeli soldiers had opened the gates adjoining Rachael’s Tomb for the Latin Patriarch, Faud Tawwal and President Abbas’s cars to come into town, co-ordinating the passage with their Palestinian counterparts. I wondered if this may be attributed to the spirit of Christmas or a manifestation of changing times!

On reaching the Nativity Church, I expected the birthplace of Jesus to be filled to capacity with Christian pilgrims and tourists, especially on Christmas Eve. However the ceremonies on Manger Square adjoining the Church of Nativity which is built on the cave that Mary bore Jesus drew only thousands, more than previous years but still not in the tens of thousands.

Faud Tawwal, the most senior Catholic bishop in the Middle East, who was to lead the midnight mass then made his way to the church, amidst much pomp and ceremony and accompanied by boy scouts with drums and bagpipes, which the locals look forward to yearly. Rome on the other hand, draws much larger crowds.

Nevertheless, celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem is truly a unique and unforgettable experience, remembering that night of 24 December, 2005 years ago, and imagining the event of the birth of Jesus in an atmosphere of prayers and hymns and listening to it all in the Arabic language, adds a unique flavour to this spiritual occasion.

Also, Christmas without Santa Claus is indeed different and without all the paraphernalia of commercialism the occasion is certainly not lost.

In the early hours of Christmas, I left Bethlehem with the memory of the cave in which Jesus was born and the candles that burn there, day and night, offering light and hope in the Holy Land!

- Rafique Gangat is a former South African diplomat, who now lives in Jerusalem.

- Are you a South African living abroad interested in sharing your views? What is it like for a South African living in a foreign country or how do you view South Africa from a distance? Send us your columns to feedback@news24.com and you might get published in our new Beyond Borders section.

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