When people call the conflict here a religious war between Muslims and Jews, I am always quick to point out that more than 10% of Palestinians are Christian (many of them in the diaspora), and the approximately 175,000 Christian Palestinians remaining in Palestine suffer from the same human rights violations and obstacles to education, employment, medical care, and proper housing as their Muslim counterparts.
Most Christian Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories reside in the Bethlehem area, just a few miles from Jerusalem. Like almost all West Bank Palestinians, they are consistently denied access into the holy city by a fortified military checkpoint. Now the Wall is further sealing off the thousands of Christians from their places of worship and religious sites. In Bethlehem the biblical Rachel’s Tomb, which had remained undamaged for millennia, was seized by Israel and transformed into an army camp, off-limits to all non-Jews. In response to what they see as both religious and racial persecution, the Palestinians of Bethlehem organized a demonstration in honor of Good Friday, with the goal of marching past the soldiers at the Bethlehem checkpoint all the way to Jerusalem.
Internationals, Muslim and Christian Palestinians, and gathered with donkeys at Manger Square in Bethlehem and began the walk towards Jerusalem. Palestinian youth rode donkeys and wore crowns of thorns and carried signs reading, “Why can’t we go to Jerusalem?” North American Christian demonstrators sang songs about Jesus while children marched with balloons and palm leaves. The march was led by a truck with a booming sound system that rang stirring music throughout the city. The group paraded with enthusiasm down the main road past Rachel’s Tomb, past the half-finished Wall that is to enclose the city, all the way to the checkpoint.
Before reaching the checkpoint, children were advised to leave, and the remaining adults linked arms and walked towards the checkpoint. On the way, there was a sign that read, “Stop, and prepare documents for inspection.” We ignored the sign, but the soldiers were waiting for us beyond it. They quickly formed a line to prevent us from moving forward, and one soldier started yelling at us to go back. We had succeeded in getting quite close to the checkpoint, so I was scared that the soldiers would begin using physical force.
I separated myself from the group to take pictures from a stone wall nearby. One soldier had drawn a picture on the back of his army vest that was captioned “Freedom,” and protesters found that ironic from someone manning a checkpoint. One protester had brought his daughter and was being interviewed by a news station. As time passed, it seemed the demonstration was achieving one of its intended objectives: media attention. Passing through the checkpoint, however, seemed to be out of the question. So the demonstrators did the next best thing: they sat down.
Our collective squat told the soldiers that we were not going anywhere. This could be seen as a small victory since it seemed we were already holding up the Israeli cars coming from Jerusalem into Bethlehem. The soldiers brought out metal barriers, which they lined up in front of us.
One Palestinian woman began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” It was a wonderful moment, and everyone who knew the words joined in. When we finished singing, a representative of Holy Land Trust (a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Bethlehem dedicated to strengthening and improving the lives of communities in the Middle East) stood up to give a speech that the organizers had prepared. The soldiers and demonstrators became quiet as he began to read.
As-Salaamu ‘alaikum (Peace be upon you),
We in the Bethlehem community have come to you today with a message on behalf of our people. We represent the family members and friends who are imprisoned by these concrete walls and wire fences that now create the Bethlehem open-air prison. You, like prison guards, control our freedom and ability to live as human beings with dignity in this holy land.
Our strong delegation of civilians comes to you without weapons but with great strength and commitment to deliver the message of just peace. In the name of security, you do not permit us to travel, to [go to] school and to worship in our holy sites in the city of Jerusalem. Your government deprives us each day of basic human rights to self-determination. Each day you keep us from being with our families at weddings, funerals, graduations, birthdays, and religious holidays. Although Jerusalem is only 20 minutes from Bethlehem, we have not been allowed to pray and worship at our holy sites.
Each day as you come to our city, you serve the system of violence that keeps our people imprisoned and without the ability to live a life of a normal human being. With your guns, tanks, and insults, you teach our children to hate.
However, we believe each of you has the power and choice to choose a different ending to this story. We appeal to your conscience and humanity as individuals and as soldiers who may feel there is no way out of this system. Put your guns away—I repeat, put your guns away—and join us in the fight for peace and freedom.
The People of Bethlehem
It was hard to know if any of the soldiers were listening. Several seemed bored and uninterested, but at least one or two must have let the words sink in. I found the speech powerful and made a mental note to suggest using group letters as a tool in other protests as well. Although we hadn’t made it through the checkpoint, the symbols, words, and music of the demonstration had made it one of the best protests I had ever been to. Having made our point, we rose, as a group, and began the long walk back to Bethlehem.