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Dismantling a living world heritage site: Pat McDonnell Twair reports on Israeli moves to rearrange the boundaries of ancient Bethlehem and the heroic efforts of Maxim and Leila Sansour to bring this travesty of justice to the attention of the international community.

THERE HAVE BEEN many reports on how the Apartheid Wall is subdividing Bethlehem, but seeing is believing and the magnitude of Israel's systematic takeover of the ancient city's holy relics, as seen on an Open Bethlehem PowerPoint presentation, is almost too shocking to comprehend.

The brother and sister team of Maxim and Leila Sansour launched Open Bethlehem in November 2005, since when they have brought the plight of the endangered cradle of Christianity to the attention of church leaders all over the world.

During a recent US presentation in All Saints Church, Pasadena, Maxim stressed that in the mid-7th century when the second Muslim Caliph Omar Ibn Al Khattab set eyes on Bethlehem, he realised immediately that it was an important Christian shrine and decreed that Muslims would not disturb a single stone of the holy site.

"A pledge was made between Christians and Muslims to live in peaceful coexistence and this has been the model Bethlehemites have emulated for centuries," Maxim stated.

But now the Wall has turned Bethlehem into a prison for its Palestinian inhabitants, cutting off 70% of its agricultural lands from the urban centre. These closures have all but suffocated the tourist industry that most of Bethlehem's inhabitants traditionally relied upon.

Maxim revealed that his grandfather owns five acres of local farmland, but he has been notified Israel will be confiscating it for 'security purposes'.

"Contemporary Bethlehem is a multi-faith society with a population of 170,000 Palestinians in the district and 75,000 in the city of Bethlehem. We have 22 churches and 14 mosques, but the Christians are rapidly emigrating so the population is now 30% Christian and 70% Muslim."

Maxim, who holds an MBA from the City University of New York noted that two US Congressmen had tried to pass a resolution condemning the Muslims for driving Christians out of Bethlehem.

"Open Bethlehem immediately notified the Congressmen that it was Israeli practices that are forcing Christians out of Bethlehem, not Muslims. As far as we know, the resolution was shelved."

More than 170,000 Israelis are living in 27 settlements that encircle and encroach upon Bethlehem, he continued. "These are not natural expansions, but deliberate measures to block the growth of Palestinian Bethlehem. The really scary settlement is Har Homa, which has been built as an alternative Bethlehem tourist centre. Har Homa doesn't have Manger Square, but it will bus Christian pilgrims to the Church of the Nativity and after they've had their photo opportunities with the holy monuments, they will be bussed back to the Jewish settlement without so much as talking to a Palestinian, buying mementos or eating in restaurants.

"Bethlehem is in a state of emergency," Maxim warned. "The Wall separates Bethlehem from neighbouring villages. There are just two exits out of Bethlehem and these can be closed on any Israeli pretext. One gate leads to Bethlehem, the other to nearby villages.

"Checkpoints separate the Christian communities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem just as the Wall has severed the Basilica of the Nativity from Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre."

Maxim showed a photo of a terraced hillside that has been carefully tended to for more than 2,000 years. The audience gasped when he revealed that this area which may have been known to and enjoyed by Muslims and "People of the Book", ie Christians and Jews, since before even the Old Testament was compiled, is destined to be dismantled for the establishment of yet another settlement.

Palestinians are particularly alarmed by a new settlement being built in the heart of Bethlehem. It surrounds Rachel's Tomb and the residents are militant fundamentalist Jews.

Maxim and Leila Sansour have carved out an arduous job in trying to save endangered Bethlehem but their advocacy work is bringing awareness to the worldwide Christian community. Open Bethlehem is registered as an non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Palestine. It also is registered in the UK as a not-for-profit company. The Latin Patriarchate has granted it office space in a heritage site on Manger Square.

Leila, who holds a master's degree in philosophy from Moscow University and has made TV documentaries in the UK as well as the feature-length film, Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army, explains that she and her brother--who are Palestinian residents living in Bethlehem--devised an honorary citizenship to be granted to people concerned with the protection of historic Bethlehem.

The first Bethlehem passport was presented by President Mahmoud Abbas to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. This year, honorary Bethlehem passports will be presented to former US president Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the presidents of Finland and Chile, all of whom have expressed interest in receiving them.

Their most successful public relations coup was Christmas 2006 when the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and the head of the Armenian Church in England visited Bethlehem. All were moved by what they witnessed and promised to promote trips by their congregants to Palestinian Bethlehem.

Archbishop Tutu expressed his dismay over the dissipation of Bethlehem stating: "It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."

Strangulation is an apt description for what has happened to Palestinian residents. The intrusive Wall winds around the home of Claire Anastus who hoped to host a birthday party for her young son but children were afraid to come because their home was so close to the fearsome barrier.

As well as the fear and intimidation there are the sheer practicalities of living with the harsh changes imposed by what has become the vilest construction of contemporary civilisation. If 70% of the agricultural land is being confiscated, how will the Palestinian population be able to feed itself?

"If the farmers no longer have access to their land, they will have to become labourers for their Israeli oppressors. Israel is creating industrial zones where it can use cheap Palestinian workers without letting them into Israel. And, of course, Israel would be happy still if the Palestinians opted to emigrate. 'Transfer' is now openly discussed on Israeli TV."

Open Bethlehem asked Zogby pollsters to conduct a survey to see what Americans know about Bethlehem. Their findings revealed a frightening and widespread ignorance of the facts. Only 15% were aware the holy city is in Palestine, not Israel. Many assumed it is a mythical place or no longer exists. And more than 70% of Americans believed the Muslims are expelling Christians from Bethlehem, rather than the other way around.

The Sansours plan to establish an Open Bethlehem office in Washington DC and to bring a major solidarity concert to Bethlehem in 2007. A multimedia CD can be obtained from their website www.
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Title Annotation:Open Bethlehem launched by Leila Sansour and Maxim Sansour spreads awareness about the thruths of Bethlehem
Author:Twair, Pat McDonnell
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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