Bethlehem has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches still functioning in Palestine. The church may have survived for more than 1500 years because of the good relationship between the Christian and Muslim residents who cohabitate in the city. St. Catherine Church is the parish church of the Catholic’s of Bethlehem and together with the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square this is the location of the Christmas Eve celebration each year.
The Bethlehem Christian community has diminished progressively since the 30s when they were the majority and today they are in the minority. There are about 22,000 (18%) Christians in Bethlehem. The reason for the dwindling community is the high unemployment in Bethlehem and the escalated Muslim extremists in Palestine. Christians claim discrimination by Muslims as another cause of Christians moving out of the city.
However despite this the Christians who remain in Bethlehem have a strong presence. The city boasts the Bethlehem Bible College; a Christian mayor; the captain of the Palestinian woman’s soccer team is a Christian from Bethlehem; the Bethlehem University is a Catholic institute open to all faiths and most importantly the Christians of Bethlehem protect and preserve the city’s Christian heritage. There are approximately 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land (Palestine and Israel) and the majority are Greek Orthodox.
The Christmas season is extremely important to Bethlehem’s Christian community. With the troubles in the region, Christmas brings people together from all over the world in peace and good will. So Christmas takes on more than religious significant in Bethlehem, it is also of national importance and symbolizes cooperation and reconciliation between all Palestinians and the diverse communities in Bethlehem. During Christmas the Bethlehem Christians get to showcase their religious culture, traditions and peaceful spirit. There is a competition between the Christian communities for the most beautiful Christmas Tree in Palestine as well as other activities to promote the spirit of the holiday.
The Christmas celebrations boost the city’s economy which is 90% reliant on tourism and the Christmas season. The many pilgrims and tourists who arrive in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve help to promote Bethlehem and bring attention to the “normalcy” of life in the West Bank. For the children of Bethlehem Christmas instills in the local kids a sense of hope, peace and community. With Christians coming to Bethlehem from around the world the Bethlehem Christian community can bond with and share their faith with fellow believers who they would otherwise not come into contact with. The commercialism of Christmas helps to keep the Christian traditions and culture alive and strengthen the Palestinian Christian community.