A Burden for Bethlehem

By: David Parsons of ICEJ

A Burden for BethlehemBethlehem, known as the birthplace of Jesus, has historically been a largely Christian Arab town that relied heavily on Christian tourism. But the influx of visitors dropped sharply during the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 and is only now starting to recover. The local Arab Christian community is also struggling, as Muslims are now in the majority and there are few jobs available for local Christians.

Over recent decades, many proud Christian families in Bethlehem have been pressured to sell their homes and businesses to Muslims and have moved abroad. Barely 10 percent of Bethlehem’s residents today are Christian, a complete reversal of 70 years ago when the town was 90 percent Christian.

Those Christians who remain have a hard time finding employment as Muslims dominate the local branches of government and all the main businesses, and they give preference to hiring fellow Muslims when job positions become available. Arab Christians from Bethlehem also have trouble competing for the limited number of work permits available in Israel. So without help from the outside, the future of Christianity in Bethlehem looks very bleak.

In recent years, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has partnered with local Arab churches to assist needy Christian families and try to stem this exodus of Christians from Bethlehem. One such partner is the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, one of the largest Evangelical congregations in the Palestinian area. The church is pastored by Dr. Naim Khoury and his son, Rev. Stephen Khoury, who have been very bold in sharing their faith over the years and now oversee a growing network of churches and Bible study groups in several other Palestinian cities as well.

In ministering to Palestinian Muslims and even traditional Arab Christians, the Khourys face a number of unique challenges. Their followers are often cut off by their families, may lose their jobs, and their children may face persecution or expulsion at school.

“There is joy in seeing people’s lives changed, but there is also a lot of sorrow and a lot of suffering,” explained Stephen Khoury. “Yet at the end of the day we are making a difference, and that’s the most important thing.”
For the past year, the Christian Embassy has teamed with the Khourys to help feed dozens of struggling Arab Christian families in Bethlehem through a special food voucher program. What makes this humanitarian project truly unique is that a third partner is also involved – an Orthodox Jewish center based in the nearby settlement of Efrat.

“We have been engaged in interfaith dialogue with local and Western Christians for some time now, but we felt a need to go beyond that and reach out to our ‘neighbours’ with actions that match our faith,” said David Nekrutman, an Orthodox Jew who directs the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. “I have known Pastor Stephen Khoury for three years now and we’ve identified two areas of great need among Bethlehem’s Christians. One is fighting poverty, which we are doing through the food voucher program, and the more long-term problem is finding them jobs.”

In April, Nekrutman and the ICEJ AID team were invited to Bethlehem to finally meet the Arab families that are being assisted by the food voucher program.

“I have dreamed of moments of reconciliation like this,” Nekrutman told the gathering. “We are two people living in the same land and need to learn to love each other.” Speaking in Arabic, Nicole Yoder of ICEJ AID told the families, “I have heard many Arab Christians in the Holy Land talk about how they feel forgotten by the rest of the Christian world. But we are here to reassure you that we are committed to helping meet your needs during these difficult times.”
At the event, the ICEJ team encountered Arab Christian men and women who are very talented and skilled, and more than willing to work, but there are simply no jobs for them. They do not want the food voucher program to be permanent, as they want to earn their own way. But until the political situation improves, they are grateful that other Christians are showing they care.

“It is such a blessing to open the fridge and see food for my family,” one Christian woman testified.

“Many of these precious brothers and sisters in Christ don’t know what to do after university. There is no hope for them,” noted Rev. Khoury. “We have people here with Bachelor’s degrees, but instead of working in their professions they are carving olive wood. So I can’t say enough about how thankful these families are for righteous people like the Christian Embassy who are standing with us.”

Meanwhile, the ICEJ is sponsoring tuition costs for a number of families in the Khourys church so their children can attend Christian schools, rather than Palestinian public schools that require study of the Koran. Funds are also being provided to sponsor young Arab pastors being trained for future ministry at the Bible school run by First Baptist Church of Bethlehem as well as those being trained for other professions at The Leadership and Career Training Program.

A Christian witness continues in the city of our Savior’s birth thanks to the generous partnership of Christians and Jews who have come alongside to strengthen them and give them hope.

David Parsons is Media Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, icejusa.org.

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