FaithWorld

Palestinians ask U.N. recognition for Bethlehem’s Nativity Church

nativity

(An Armenian priest in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 18, 2008/Nayef Hashlamoun)

Unlike the Sydney Opera House or the Statue of Liberty, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest places in Christendom, is not on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. It lies inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinians, with no state of their own, do not enjoy the full U.N. membership to secure United Nations recognition.

On Monday, they announced plans to rectify what the U.N. cultural agency agrees is a glaring anomaly that has placed the church — built 1,700 years ago over the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born — in international limbo.

“This step is part and parcel of our plan to end the (Israeli) occupation and establish a state,” said Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khouloud Daibes, presenting a formal submission to the UNESCO heritage committee, which over the past 40 years has denoted more than 900 sites of “outstanding universal value to humanity.”

An estimated two million pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the Church of the Nativity this year, bending low to enter by the Door of Humility to the basilica, whose rafters were donated by the 15th century English king, Edward IV. For Christian pilgrims it is as holy as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, a few kilometres to the north, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 30 years.

European far right courts Israel in stepped-up anti-Islam drive

street prayers (Photo: Muslims pray in the street during Friday prayers near an overcrowded mosque in the Rue des Poissoniers  in Paris on December 17, 2010/Charles Platiau)

Far-right political parties in Europe are stepping up their anti-Muslim rhetoric and forging ties across borders, even going so far as to visit Israel to hail the Jewish state as a bulwark against militant Islam.

Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front has shocked the French political elite in recent days by comparing Muslims who pray outside crowded mosques — a common sight especially during the holy month of Ramadan — to the World War Two Nazi occupation. Oskar Freysinger, a champion of the Swiss ban on minarets, warned a far-right meeting in Paris on Saturday against “the demographic, sociological and psychological Islamisation of Europe”. German and Belgian activists also addressed the crowd.

street prayers 2 (Photo: Muslims pray in the street during Friday prayers near the Et-Taqwa Mosque in Paris on December 17, 2010. REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Geert Wilders, whose populist far-right party supports the Dutch minority government, told Reuters last week he was organising an “international freedom alliance” to link grass-roots groups active in “the fight against Islam”. Earlier this month, Wilders visited Israel and backed its West Bank settlements, saying Palestinians there should move to Jordan. Like-minded German, Austrian, Belgian, Swedish and other far-rightists were on their own Israel tour at the same time. “Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism and (the Israelis) are fighting our fight,” Wilders said. “If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”

Israeli rabbis tell Jews not to sell homes to Arabs, Netanyahu disagrees (updated)

settlement (Photo: A sign advertising apartments for sale in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem March 2, 2009/Ammar Awad)

Dozens of Israeli rabbis, some of them civil servants, issued an appeal on Tuesday telling locals not to sell or rent property to non-Jews, drawing condemnation from lawmakers and human rights activists. The open letter underscored Jewish-Arab tensions that have deepened along with Israel’s deadlocked Palestinian conflict, as well as more recent demographic fears triggered by an influx of illegal African migrants.

“The land of Israel is intended for the people of Israel,” Yosef Shainin, chief rabbi of the southern port city of Ashdod and one of the 41 signatories, told Israel’s Army Radio when asked about the letter.

Obtained by Reuters ahead of its planned publication in synagogues and religious journals, the letter quotes warnings by ancient sages that living with non-Jews can lead to “sacrilege.” Other concerns for property values are also raised. Another signatory, Chief Rabbi Mordechai Nagari from the Maale Adumim settlement, said: “If you allow Arabs into Jewish neighborhoods, you are asking for feuds to ensue.”

In Holy Land, Christians are a community in decline

latinIn 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.

Ayman Abu al-Zulaf, 41, moved to France in 1998. But he returned to Beit Sahour, the village where he was born, a year later. “I needed to be here, not in France,” he said. “Without Christians, the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, has no value.”

Jewish settlers replace Korans burnt in West Bank

korans (Photo: Rabbi Menachem Froman (R) holds a Koran given to Palestinians after Monday’s attack in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem October 5, 2010/Ammar Awad)

Jewish settlers on Tuesday gave new copies of the Koran to Palestinians in a West Bank village whose mosque was burned in an attack blamed by Palestinians on militants in the settler movement.

Several copies of Islam’s holy book were scorched in the arson attack and threats in Hebrew were scrawled on the wall of the mosque of Beit Fajjar early on Monday. Suspicion immediately fell on settler militants opposed to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, in which some settlements would be turned over to a Palestinian state.

“This visit is to say that although there are people who oppose peace, he who opposes peace is opposed to God,” said Rabbi Menachem Froman, a well-known peace activist and one of a handful of settlers who went to Beit Fajjar to show solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.

Korans burnt in West Bank mosque attack blamed on Jewish settlers

beit fajjar 1 (Photos: Burned carpet in mosque above, burned Koran below, 4 Oct 2010/Ammar Awad)

Jewish settlers opposed to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians were accused of setting fire to a mosque in the West Bank on Monday, burning the Koran and scrawling threats in Hebrew on its walls. “Mosques, we burn,” said a warning scribbled at the door of the smoke-smudged mosque of Beit Fajjar south of Bethlehem on the day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed for cool heads to avert the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The green-carpeted floor of the mosque was burned to a black crust in a dozen places where it was doused with kerosene and set alight at around three in the morning. A dozen copies of the Koran were scorched by the fire.  Palestinians said settlers were behind the attack. “The settlers’ message is: terrorize the Palestinian people,” said Mohammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who came to inspect the damage and talk to the locals.

A Star of David symbol and the words “Price Tag” were found scrawled over the mosque’s doorway.  Militant settlers coined the slogan to warn of the cost of any threat to their presence. It was the fourth such attack since December and “a very serious incident which we view with utmost gravity,” said Israeli military spokeswoman Lieut. Colonel Avital Liebowitz.

Jewish settlers claim biblical birthright to occupied West Bank land

settlers (Photo: Avraham Binyamin builds a sukkah, a ritual booth for the holiday of Sukkot, on the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, south of Nablus, September 20, 2010/Ronen Zvulun)

Jewish settler Avraham Binyamin says any Israeli withdrawal from occupied land would be like severing a limb from his body. As one of some 300,000 Israelis living in enclaves built on West Bank land that Palestinians seek for a state, Binyamin expresses a view held by many that the area is a Jewish biblical birthright and must never be relinquished, not even for peace.

“The national being of any people, particularly the Jewish people, is like a body, you cannot give up parts of your body,” said Binyamin, 25, a teacher from Yitzhar, a settlement known for its tense relations with neighboring Palestinian villages. The question of settlements has come to the fore at the peace negotiations as a partial freeze on Jewish building in the West Bank ended on Sunday.

The religiously devout father of two says the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank should be relocated to neighboring Arab lands. “I can sometimes very much understand their pain and their need,” he says. “But from the national perspective, it’s either me or them — and I prefer it to be me.”

Feeble, choked River Jordan struggles for salvation

baptism (Photo: Orthodox Christian nuns stand in the muddy Jordan River with two pilgrims at the Qasir al-Yahud baptismal site near the West Bank city of Jericho, March 31, 2010/Darren Whiteside)

Christian pilgrims alarmed by claims that baptism in the River Jordan could make them sick are being urgently reassured by Israeli officials that the water poses no health risk.

Water quality tests published this week counter allegations by environmentalist group Friends of the Earth that the level of coliform bacteria from sewage in the river is too high for safe bathing, Eli Dror of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said.

“There’s absolutely no problem with the quality of the water. People can come and baptise here as much as they want,” Dror told Reuters. “I can guarantee it.”

Witness – Writing on the walls in the Holy Land

bethlehem wall 1 (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.

From the minefields of Israel’s frontlines with Syria and Lebanon to the fortified fences around the West Bank and Gaza Strip — much in this month’s headlines — to the walls, old and new, of Jerusalem, physical barriers shape the lives of the 12 million people cut off here in what was once called Palestine.

Russian Orthodox take icy plunges to celebrate Epiphany

Russian Orthodox believers washed away their sins by taking a plunge into icy waters on the feast of the Epiphany, which fell on Monday according to the Orthodox calendar.  The traditional triple dip commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.  Here are several Reuters photographs and a Reuters video of Russians braving the winter cold to perform the ritual. dip 1

A man prepares to dip in icy waters during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with the air temperature at about -26 degrees Celsius ( -14.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Pereslavl-Zalessky, some 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Sergei Karpukhin dip 2

A man gets out of the water during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with air temperature at about -24 degrees Celsius (-11.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in Suzdal, some 200 km (124 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Denis Sinyakov dip 3

A man helps a woman out of the Bazaikha river during Orthodox Epiphany celebrations, with air temperature at about -28 degrees Celsius (-18.4 degrees Fahrenheit), in the suburbs of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk January 19, 2010/Ilya Naymushin