View from the Pew
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Claire Anastas, a resident of Bethlehem, shows photos of her home, which is surrounded on three sides by a wall Israel built against terrorists.
A wall built in defense of Israel is choking Bethlehem's Christians, a resident says
Bethlehem. Just the word stimulates Christians all over the world as they look forward to the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. "Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie," goes the old song that's out on the secular airwaves, not just in churches.
Claire Anastas will speak about the life of Palestinian Christians at the following locations:
Today, 2 p.m., Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center, 19 N. Pauahi St.
Tomorrow, 9 a.m., Church of the Crossroads, 1212 University Ave.
Tomorrow, 2 p.m., Harris United Methodist Church, 20 S. Vineyard Blvd.
Friday, 12:30 p.m., University of Hawaii, Saunders Hall, 2424 Maile Way
Nov. 18, 1 p.m., Chaminade University Ching Center, 3140 Waialae Ave. The lecture will be sponsored by the David Chappell Peace Program, UH Ethnic Studies Department, UH Center for Biographical Research and the Friends of Sabeel.
It's one of the most romanticized, sentimentalized images in religion: A holy child is born in the humblest conditions. People unpack the Nativity sets, read the Gospel account in churches, relive the wonder-filled events in pageants of angels, shepherds and Magi arriving to find Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus in the stable.
Claire Anastas has brought some other images of Bethlehem to town and will be showing them to Oahu audiences next week. Her family's home is seven miles from the Church of the Holy Nativity, built on the site believed to be Christ's birthplace.
If ever the adage about a picture being worth a thousand words fits, it does with the photograph of the Anastas home. The three-story brick building is enclosed on three sides by a 25-foot-high wall built by the Israeli government.
It's a small loop in the 400-plus-mile wall under construction since 2003 along the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. For Israel it is a measure to secure the country against entry by terrorists. The wall closed roads and ended access to jobs, families and sacred sites for people who live in Gaza and the West Bank. To say more about what Palestinians, Western governments and human rights activists say about the wall would force this column to move to the editorial page.
Claire Anastas is Catholic, and her husband, Johnny, is an Orthodox Christian. They live with their four children and eight other Anastas family members in the 45-year-old building in a formerly affluent, mostly Christian neighborhood on the road leading north to Jerusalem.
She operated shops selling household goods to local residents and souvenirs to tourists on the first floor. He had an auto parts and mechanic business. They were forced out of business after escalating Muslim terrorist attacks in Jewish cities five years ago sparked escalating military response from Israel. Their neighborhood became a war zone.
"It was so hard and dangerous," she said. "My children have passed through a lot of dangers. We had a lot of miracles. We just pray to God. It helped us and led us to survive.
"We are civilians. We know nothing about political things. We have not hurt anyone."
COURTESY MORGAN COOPER
Palestinian Christian Claire Anastas and her family live in Bethlehem where their home has been surrounded on three sides by a 25-foot-high wall built by the government of Israel.
The violence led to a drastic reduction in tourism. Shops were shuttered as the waves of international pilgrims slowed to a trickle at the Church of the Holy Nativity. There's less violence lately, but the economic decline continues now that the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is closed. Busloads of tourists come through Israeli checkpoints, are dropped off for quick visits to the church and loaded back aboard for a quick exit -- and shopping stops elsewhere.
There is another biblical pilgrimage destination in Bethlehem, and it's the reason for the weird wrinkle in the wall around the Anastas property. The tomb of Rachel, wife of Jacob whose sons were the foundation of the 12 tribes of Israel, draws busloads of devout Jews from all over the world. The barricade now curls around the tomb to define it as Israeli territory.
"Now tourists stop to take pictures of my house," said Anastas. Some of those passers-by have been international media, who have interviewed her family and shown the fate of the home in news reports.
"It used to be the most rich area for work," she said. "We used to have all kinds of festivals, and shops and restaurants would stay open day and night. Now we are caged alone in a small prison. Also, Bethlehem is caged alone, in a big prison," she said.
Anastas came to Hawaii with the help of University of Hawaii graduate student Morgan Cooper, who helped set up speaking appearances at island churches and UH classes. She brought samples of the olive wood crosses, Nativity sets, statues and other items made by Bethlehem craftsmen and will sell them at the Oahu events to help support the trip and benefit her neighbors.
"I was a shy woman, really," said the Palestinian mother who decided to speak out. "I always pray to God. I ask Him if he needs something from me, to do something for where he was born, let me do it. I will never stop talking about where Jesus was born.
"The Christian community in Bethlehem is all one community. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, we are all together in God."
Many of those descendants of the first Christians have moved away, but the Anastas family hasn't made that decision, not yet.
"Christianity will, after 10 years, be gone from Bethlehem," said Anastas. "People would like to stay where Jesus was born. We are frustrated, tired from all the bad things. We would like to live in peace."