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Religious Coexistence in a Town of Three Faces

Mentioning the name Bethlehem brings to mind three different views: The romantic view of an idyllic hillside village with shepherds roaming the silent streets in search of a newborn savior. The picture is frozen in time from Sunday school stories, Christmas cards, and carols. The tourist view of a hectic and troubled West Bank site. The bus stops in Manger Square, and visitors are herded quickly through the ancient Church of the Nativity, where the darkness, stone and marble, smell of incense, and signs of Eastern piety disturb the mind.

As if King Herod's soldiers lurked outside, visitors rush back to the bus followed by postcard and souvenir hustlers. They drive off with the image of the checkpoint and armed border police implanting in their memory a snapshot scene of terror and confusion. The resident view as 30,000 inhabitants carry out a daily pilgrimage of life - going to school, earning a living, feeding families, and struggling with the complexities of a strife-torn land. The hustle and bustle of daily life is best experienced up the hill and away from Manger Square and the Nativity Church. That, in fact, is where the ancient village once stood, home to only a hundred or so inhabitants.

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The old carol conjures up notions of a still, silent Bethlehem and its dark, lonely streets. Today, busy thoroughfares wind along the hillside through a maze of houses and shops, teeming with life. Bethlehem, however, is a model for religious coexistence. Leaders proudly relate the story of Caliph Omar al-Khattab, who came to Bethlehem from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. The Christian patriarch was giving him a tour of Nativity Church when the caliph realized it was time for his afternoon prayers. Informed of the situation, the patriarch unhesitatingly issued an invitation for the caliph to pray right there in the south wing of the church. The result of this act of kindness was a letter from Omar calling for peace and cooperation among Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem throughout all generations.

Not surprisingly, this document is read again each Christmas. Its lasting effect was made evident last February during the first Palestinian elections. While the 30 percent Christian minority could easily have been slighted, the Palestinian government guaranteed that the seats of the four Bethlehem representatives should be divided equally between Christians and Muslims. In the city known for the infant Jesus and the young boy victims of Herod, nearly half the population is under the age of 15; more than three-fourths below the age of 30. Modern baby hospitals and renowned schools demonstrate the priority placed on youth. One hospital was founded when several orphaned babies were left on the doorstep of a priest. A school for girls is run entirely by an order of Arab Roman Catholic nuns.

During this time of year, the sounds of drums echo through the streets. In the most popular youth program various marching corps compete for high distinction in the annual Christmas processions. With Palestinian autonomy established for Bethlehem last December, its residents look to the future in hope. Nevertheless, the present is filled with struggle. Only a mile from Manger Square, the military checkpoint forms a barrier to nearby Jerusalem. A byproduct of the peace negotiations, this barrier has meant the permanent loss of employment in Jerusalem for thousands of Bethlehemites. For the few still fortunate enough to obtain permits, the frequent closures offer no dependable solution. The result is 40 percent unemployment. The tourist trade is not much better. Three new hotels were built early this year in hopes that interest in Bethlehem would pick up.

With the discouragement of Israeli guides and the slanted coverage in the media, only a few travelers are willing to give this fascinating place an in-depth visit. Nevertheless, doors remain wide open in Bethlehem, where the greatest gift is warm Arab hospitality. It is a different pace of life. There is always time for a cup of coffee or a glass of tea. And the visitor who shows interest may receive a surprising but not uncommon invitation, "Come, you must visit my house and eat with me."

Fred Strickert , associate professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, is co-author of a forthcoming book about Bethlehem.

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