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(Photo: A decorated Christmas tree next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 15, 2010/Ammar Awad)
The birthplace of Jesus is hardly an easy "weekend getaway" spot, but for a taste of how today's Holy Land feels, this hospitable Palestinian town draped over the steep hilltops outside Jerusalem is an essential place to visit.
Most foreigners fly into Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, an hour away from Jerusalem, and enter via Israeli checkpoints into the occupied West Bank. Security remains tight but there is currently no tension to deter the hardy traveler.
Visitors love to come at Christmas, when a crowded Bethlehem celebrates its most famous date at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. But the town hosts tourists year round. In the summer it's hot. In winter, there can be a veil of snow on the rooftops so warm clothing is advisable.
Click here for tips from our local correspondent Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh on what to visit and where to eat. Among the places to see are:
(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI blesses a nativity scene at the Vatican December 15, 2010/Tony Gentile)
Pope Benedict voiced the Catholic Church's deep concern over "hostility and prejudice" against Christianity in Europe on Thursday, saying creeping secularism was just as bad as religious fanaticism. In the message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, marked on Jan. 1, he also reiterated recent condemnations of lack of religious freedom in countries in the Middle East where Christians are a minority, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
He said Christians were the most persecuted religious group in the world and that it was "unacceptable" that in some places they had to risk their lives to practise their faith. But he reserved his strongest words for Europe, where the Church says it is under assault by some national governments and European institutions over issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the use of Christian religious symbols in public places.
The conservative Christian, Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC) has just released its first "Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection." You can click here to see its full details.
The "Index of Belonging" is 45 percent and that of "Rejection" is 55 percent. The report's author, Patrick Fagan, who heads FRC's Marriage and Religion Research Institute, says the following:
Indices are all the rage these days. In his recently published and thought-provoking "Why the West Rules -- For Now," historian Ian Morris has created an "index on social development" which, among other things, attempts to measure the West and East's "energy capture."
There are of course plenty of other examples (and future historians will no doubt see it as a sign of our times -- as Morris notes, ages get the "thought they need"). The latest addition to this swelling modern family of indices will come on Wednesday when the conservative, Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC) releases its first annual "Index of Family Belonging and Rejection." The index is a product of its Marriage and Religion Research Institute.
(Photo: Protesters demand release of Asia Bibi, in Lahore November 21, 2010/Mohsin Raza)
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Naeem Shakir is a Lahore-based human rights activist and advocate of the Pakistan Supreme Court.
By Naeem Shakir
The religious minorities in Pakistan are once again awe-struck over the death sentence passed against a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, for committing blasphemy. The fear and scare such tragic events create and spread amongst the minorities goes down their spine and dampens their spirits as citizens of Pakistan. They wonder for how long they would be persecuted for having a faith different from the Muslim majority. Each time it has been found that the blasphemy law was used either for religious persecution or for settling personal scores or grabbing land.
An American Christian preacher who rose from obscurity to cause global uproar this year by threatening to burn the Koran says he plans to visit Britain to speak at an event hosted by a far-right anti-Islamist group.
Anti-extremist groups have urged the British government to ban entry to Florida Pastor Terry Jones, whose threat to burn Islam's holy book on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks provoked widespread condemnation.
One little-reported aspect of the political wrangling around attempts to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans gays from serving openly in the U.S. military was how the religious right tied it to another hot-button cultural issue: abortion.
This would certainly have caught the attention of socially conservative Republicans who were instrumental in defeating a measure aimed at its repeal in the U.S. Senate on Thursday night.
A hardline, pro-Taliban Pakistani Muslim cleric on Friday offered a reward for anyone who kills a Christian woman sentenced to death by a court on charges of insulting Islam. The sentence against Asia Bibi has renewed debate about Pakistan's blasphemy law which critics say is used to persecute religious minorities, fan religious extremism and settle personal scores. Non-Muslim minorities account roughly 4 percent of Pakistan's about 170 million population. (Photo: Maulana Yousef Qureshi in Peshawar, February 17, 2006/str)
Maulana Yousef Qureshi, the imam of a major mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar, offered a $5,800 (3,700 pounds) reward and warned the government against any move to abolish or change the blasphemy law. "We will strongly resist any attempt to repeal laws which provide protection to the sanctity of Holy Prophet Mohammad," Qureshi told a rally of hardline Islamists.
(Photo: Pprotesters demand the release of Asia Bibi at a Karachi rally, November 25, 2010/Akhtar Soomro)
A Pakistani court has barred President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning a Christian woman sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam, in a case that has sparked criticism over the country's blasphemy law. Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four, requested a pardon from the president after a lower court sentenced her to death on Nov 8 in a case stemming from a village dispute.
The Lahore High Court barred Zardari on Monday from pardoning Bibi in a petition filed by Shahid Iqbal, a Pakistani citizen. Iqbal's lawyer Allah Bux Laghari told Reuters a pardon was illegal as the court was already hearing an appeal against her sentence.