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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:
Using the Bible as its guide, Texas-based energy company Zion Oil and Gas has searched for oil in the Holy Land for a decade. The company uses a map of the 12 ancient tribes of Israel and the biblical assertion - "the foot of Asher to be dipped in oil on the head of Joseph" - as an unlikely guide to help it decide where to drill. (Photo: A worker stands on an oil rig belonging to Zion Oil and Gas in Karkur, northern Israel October 17, 2010/Nir Elias)
Sitting beneath an 18-storey rig in northern Israel, Zion's CEO Richard Rinberg translates that reference by pointing to an area on the map where the territory of Asher - long and thin and shaped like a leg - once pushed into the land that belonged to Joseph's sons.
In the land where Jesus lived, Christians say their dwindling numbers are turning churches from places of worship into museums. And when Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the places of Christ's birth, death and resurrection, they find them divided by a concrete wall. (Photo: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal at a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2009/Ammar Awad)
Members of the Abu al-Zulaf family, Palestinian Christians, have left the hills and olive groves of their village near Bethlehem for Sweden and the United States, seeking a better life than that on offer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Franciscan Father David Jaeger is one of the Roman Catholic Church's most authoritative experts on the Middle East. Until a few weeks ago, he was the delegate of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Rome. A convert from Judaism who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1986, he is a noted canon lawyer. He was part of the Vatican team that negotiated diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and is part of the Vatican team that is still ironing out the final subsidiary details of that accord. He spoke to Reuters and Reuters Television about the upcoming Mideast synod in the atrium of Antonianum University in Rome. Here is a transcript of parts of the conversation.
What do you expect from the synod?
I think it is intended to be a very significant step forward in the development of the witness of the Church in the Middle East. Synods are convened not simply, or not necessarily, in response to a current affairs concerns but as a moment for the Church to grow, in faithfulness and in effectiveness of witness.
There used to be a television series about the New York Police Department that ended with the voiced-over sign-off: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." We've been hearing mostly about only one of the religion stories in New York these days, the controversy surrounding the planned Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site. On a recent visit to New York, I had the pleasure of hearing a very different type of New York story when I interviewed the NYPD officers who led the unusual interfaith tour of the Holy Land described in my feature here. (Photo: From left - Miller, Nasser, Wein and Reilly at interfaith center in Israel)
I met Sgt. Brian Reilly, Detective Ahmed Nasser and Detective Sam Miller at Reilly's Lower East Side office and spoke to Detective Larry Wein by phone because he was out investigating a case. The Lower East Side has traditionally been so diverse that it's almost tailor-made for the kind of interfaith cooperation they highlighted with this trip. "I've worked here in the Lower East Side and East Village for 29 years and been exposed to people from all over the world," said Miller, who is Jewish. "It's just a melting pot of every race, religion and ethnicity." The NYPD reflects the city's diversity, he said: "This is the most diversified police department in the world. I’m an investigator. When we need a translator, I don’t have to go outside. We have members of the service who can speak any language in the world."
A new Jerusalem exhibit displaying a million years of history in the Holy Land offers Bible buffs and skeptics alike a chance to say: "I told you so!" The Israel Museum, fresh-faced after a three-year, $100 million upgrade, offers an unparalleled look into the development of monotheistic religions, while leaving plenty of room for both science and faith. (Photo: A statue of the Emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem July 20, 2010/Baz Ratner)
The museum's more devout visitors may feel vindicated by a collection of three-thousand-year-old weapons used by ancient warriors in the Battle of Lachish, verifying the fighting as depicted in the Bible. The scientifically minded can point to a set of 1.5 million year old bull horns on display around the corner, by far predating Earth's creation as described by the book of Genesis.
(Photo: A Palestinian near the Israeli barrier in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem November 9, 2009/Darren Whiteside)
Alastair Macdonald has been Reuters Bureau Chief in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the past three years. As a foreign correspondent over the past 20, he has previously been based in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Baghdad. As he ends his assignment in Jerusalem, he reflects in the following story on how he has watched people in the region build an array of barriers, both physical and emotional, to cut themselves off from each other.
With one last exit stamp in my passport, I end a three-year reporting assignment in the Holy Land that has been marked by images of frontiers, by a sense of walls going up and fewer and fewer people finding a way through.
Reuters Video Report -- DNA confirms that a secretive African tribe are direct descendants of Jews who fled the Holy Land 2,500 years ago, and one their religious artifacts might be linked to the lost Ark of the Covenant.
There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.
from AxisMundi Jerusalem:
Click below to view a multimedia presentation by Sharon Perry showcasing some of the best Reuters images from Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the week of August 24-31, 2009.