JERUSALEM – An article published Sunday by WorldNetDaily quoting Bethlehem residents as saying local Muslim persecution prompted tens of thousands of Christians to flee the city is “all lies” and the “kind of American reporting [that] is the real reason for any rift between Muslims and Christians,” a major Palestinian newspaper stated yesterday, claiming inter-religious relations in Bethlehem “have never been better.”

“There is no problem between Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem, but any problem that may exist is because of this kind of article in the American media,” stated a piece in the Al Manar Palestinian daily.

The Palestinian paper went on to quote several sections of WND’s article, “Muslim grinches steal Bethlehem Christmas,” calling the report “all lies. This is an effort to separate Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem.”

WND reported many Christians in Bethlehem say they face constant Muslim hostility, prompting the Christian population to decline from 90 percent of the city to the current demographic of less than 25 percent. The drastic decline started in 1995, the year the Palestinian Authority took control of Bethlehem.

The WND article came after world leaders took the occasion of Bethlehem’s Christmas Eve Mass to blame Israel’s recently constructed security fence in the area for Christian woes, and followed scores of American media reports about this past weekend’s festivities that seemed to find Israel’s fence mostly at fault for low tourist turnout at Christmas celebrations and the lower Christian population figures.

Christmas celebrations this year attracted about 30,000 tourists – 10,000 more than last year but down from an average of 150,000 in 1994.

“All this talk about Israel driving Christians out and causing pain is nonsense,” a Bethlehem Christian community leader told WND this past weekend. “You want to know what is at play here, just come throughout the year and see the intimidation from the Muslims. They have burned down our stores, built mosques in front of our churches, stole our real estate and took away our rights. Women have been raped and abducted. So don’t tell me about Israel. It’s the Muslims.”

The Bethlehem leader, like many Christians on the streets of the city, would not provide his name for publication for fear of retaliation.

One religious novelty-store owner cited examples of Muslim gangs defacing Christian property, the PA replacing Christian leaders on public councils with Muslims and armed Palestinian factions stirring tensions. One such incident was last week’s storming of Bethlehem’s City Hall, across the street from the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, by gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group.

But Al Manar claimed: “Relations between Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem have never been better. Even though Muslims now compose the vast majority of Bethlehem, the PA still allows the Christians to hold 7 out of 13 municipality seats.”

The Bethlehem Christian store owner, though, disagreed.

“We are harassed but you wouldn’t know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims.”

Indeed, many leaders in attendance at Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem took the occasion to blame Israel’s recently constructed security fence in the area for Christian troubles.

In a televised midnight Christmas speech, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said, “Palestinians are seeking a bridge to peace instead of Israeli walls. Unfortunately, Israel is continuing with its destructive policy … (and) transforming our land into a big jail.”

Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, speaking at St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, called for Israel to remove its “separation barrier, which is causing all kinds of hardships and affecting normal life in Bethlehem.”

The archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, urged Israel “to build bridges and not walls” and blamed Israel for “[compelling Christians] to leave the land of their birth for foreign lands on account of the political situation.”

And a sampling of American media coverage of the weekend’s festivities seems to find Israel mostly at fault for the decline in Christian living conditions and population figures.

A widely printed Associated Press article by staff writer Sarah El Deeb opens, “Thousands of tourists and pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing a long-missing sense of holiday cheer to Jesus’ historic birthplace. … But Israel’s imposing separation barrier at the entrance to town dampened the Christmas spirit and provided a stark reminder of the unresolved conflict.”

The San Francisco Chronicle stated, “For centuries, pilgrims from around the world converged on the Palestinian town of Bethlehem at Christmas, packing Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. … In 2002, Israel began building a 25-foot concrete wall around the city, severing it from Jerusalem and the northern West Bank. Today, the streets of Bethlehem are quiet.”

An earlier article by the the Chicago Tribune blamed Israel’s fence, constructed in 2002, for collapsing Bethlehem’s economy and prompting Christians to leave, even though the mass exodus began seven years prior.

“A towering wall of gray concrete slabs, 30 feet high, cuts across what was once the main road into this town from Jerusalem. Just inside the barrier, past a new Israeli security terminal, a once-bustling neighborhood has become a ghost town. Shops are shuttered or empty, and the streets are deserted. … The deteriorating economy has led to a steady exodus of the city’s Christian residents,” the Tribune article reads. notes the various press accounts are factually inaccurate.

  • Contrary to the Chronicle report and scores of other media accounts, there is no barrier that encircles Bethlehem. A fence exists only where the Bethlehem area interfaces with Jerusalem, and only a small segment of the fence is a concrete wall, which Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists.

  • The Bethlehem economy the past few years has actually improved significantly. Tourism has doubled compared to last year, and Bethlehem’s main industries are up: textiles by 50 percent, stone and marble export by 40 percent and commercial transportation 20 percent. The increases have reportedly brought an influx of millions of dollars into the Bethlehem local economy.

  • Israel says the Israeli Defense Forces this year is making access to Bethlehem easier for tourists. IDF Lt. Col. Aviv Feigel said, “The military will try to speed the process by not checking every tourist bus, but conducting spot checks of random buses instead.” The IDF also instituted a bus shuttle service to Bethlehem to speed travel time to the city.

For years, Bethlehem was largely Christian. But when the PA took control in 1995 it publicly expanded Bethlehem’s boundaries reportedly to ensure a Muslim majority, incorporating into the city over 30,000 Muslims from adjacent refugee camps. Then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat unilaterally replaced the Christian-dominated city council with a largely Muslim leadership.

Since then, there have been a steady stream of reported abuses and persecution.

An aide to Latin Patriarch Sabbah who asked that his name be withheld told WND the PA has been appropriating lands of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem and building mosques on the formerly Christian land.

He said he is aware of several cases in which Christian women were raped and murdered, but the alleged criminals were not arrested.

“The Palestinian security forces know who did these crimes. They know where the criminals live. Still nothing to arrest them,” said the aide.

The novelty-store owner told WND he was shot by Muslims in 2001. He said the assailants are still at large.

Cases involving other alleged anti-Christian violence in Bethlehem include attacks against Christians in 2001 after a Palestinian Muslim leader called for a “jihad” against both Jews and Christians; riots that spilled over from Ramallah in 2002 in which Muslim mobs burned Christian businesses and attempted to destroy churches; and regular reports of shootings and threats.

Israeli security officials say over 100 cases of anti-Christian violence are reported to the Palestinian police every year. They estimate most incidents go unreported.

In one of the most infamous cases of anti-Christian violence, Palestinian terrorists in 2002 holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and refused to release the religious staff inside. There were reports the gunmen, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, looted the facilities, desecrated the church and even used the Bible as toilet paper.

One document later captured by Israel indicated the terrorists also demanded monetary support from Bethlehem town officials.

The Bethlehem store owner said he took comfort from the words of Pope John Paul II, who visited the city the same year as the church siege.

Speaking to a gathering of Christians, the pope said, “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.”

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