BETHLEHEM – Muslim street peddlers here bombarded tourists with discounted souvenirs in Manger Square – the hub of Bethlehem’s holiday activity – setting up shop in front of Christian stores some of whose owners complained their businesses were being hijacked.
“Tourism is up this year. Christians are visiting from all over. They come out of the Church of the Nativity and before they arrive at my store they’ve already been approached by a half-dozen Muslim vendors selling the same stuff but cheaper,” said the manager of one shop situated across from the Church of the Nativity alongside Manger Square.
Manger Square in Bethlehem (file photo)
“We lower the prices, but then the vendors do, too,” the manager complained.
The church is the believed birthplace of Jesus. It has seen an increase in the number of visitors since last year, according to locals. Directly outside the church begins the Manger Square thoroughfare, site of religious activity, Christmas decorations and mostly Christian-owned stores.
But the thoroughfare has been packed with Muslim vendors selling souvenirs and religious items such as crosses and cedarwood carvings – much the same objects found in the surrounding Christian stores.
Church visitors cannot exit the large structure without passing through the swarms of vendors.
Several local Christians, speaking on condition of anonymity, charged the Muslim vendors set up their stations without required permits after paying what were described as “special commissions” to the Palestinian Authority security forces that control the city.
WND asked three vendors if they had obtained permits, but they refused to respond.
Upon observing the scene for an afternoon, it was clear during that time the Muslim vendors were raking in the majority of business. According to local shopworkers, this has been the situation for the past two weeks.
The scene was the latest episode of Bethlehem’s dwindling Christian population, which has reportedly been the target of rampant Islamic intimidation and persecution.
Bethlehem consisted of up to 80 percent Christians when Israel was founded in 1948, but immediately after the Palestinian Authority took over in 1995 in line with the U.S.-backed Oslo Accords, the Christian population quickly declined to about 23 percent, with a large majority of Muslims. The 23 percent Christian statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating every year.
Christian leaders and residents, most of whom spoke to WND on condition of anonymity during recent interviews, said they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.
They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.
In 2002, dozens of terrorists holed up inside the Church of the Nativity for 39 days while fleeing a massive Israeli anti-terror operation. Israel surrounded the church area but refused to storm the structure. Gunmen inside included wanted senior Hamas, Tanzim and Brigades terrorists reportedly involved in suicide bombings and shooting attacks. More than 200 nuns and priests were trapped in the church after Israeli hostage negotiators failed to secure their release.
Some Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs.
“There are many cases where Christians have their land stolen by the [Muslim] mafia,” said Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station.
“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses and he runs away,” Qumsiyeh told WND, speaking form his hilltop television station during a recent interview.
Qumsiyeh himself said he was targeted by Islamic gangs. He said his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches outlining the plight of Bethlehem’s Christian population.
One Christian Bethlehem resident told WND her friend recently fled Bethlehem after being accused by Muslims of selling property to Jews, a crime punishable by death in some Palestinian cities. The resident said a good deal of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization.
A Jerusalem Post article in February cited the case of Faud and Georgette Lama, Christian residents of Bethlehem who said their land was stolen by local Muslims and when they tried to do something about it, Faud was beaten by gunmen.
Qumsiyeh and other Christian leaders said if current trends in Bethlehem continue, there may be no Christians left in the city in 15 years. He said he appealed to U.S. Christian leaders to help initiate housing projects and find ways to fortify and strengthen Bethlehem’s Christian population, but that little assistance was offered.
“The way things are, soon there will not be a single Christian living in the land of Jesus,” he said.
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