At the time of Jesus’ birth Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire; the Gospel of Luke refers to Caesar Augustus as the sovereign at the time(Luke 2) and the Senate appointed Herod as king of the region. The majority of residents in Palestine at the time were Jewish.
The Jews were hostile towards the Roman rulers who tried to bring the Jews into submission by implementing taxes and introducing Roman culture to the cities. Most of the Romans were idol worshipers, non-religious or believed in folklore and superstition. Following the birth of Christ and his subsequent rise to being the leader of a new faith the Jews were faced with yet another “foreign” belief in their midst. Jesus’ crucifixion was an attempt to squelch the growing belief in what became Christianity.
During Christ’s lifetime and following his crucifixion Bethlehem’s population of 300-1,000 people was still predominantly Jewish with a few minor faiths for example there was one honoring the God of Fertility. As Christianity gained popularity in Palestine Bethlehem’s Christian population also grew. However with the Jewish Revolution of Bar-Kokhba in 135AD the Romans were merciless and in their fight to wipe out the Jews they effectively wiped out the small Christian population of Palestine. In 31AD Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and followers of Jesus in Palestine could now worship Jesus openly. Constantine’s mother, Helena traveled to Palestine where she set about clarifying the location of Biblical sites and erecting churches and monasteries to mark the holy places. Helena commissioned the construction of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. With the acceptance of Christianity in Palestine there was a large influx of Christians from across the Roman Empire. During the Byzantine period Christianity flourished in the Holy Land and Christianity became the majority faith.
Muslim Arabs invaded the Holy Land in 640 and Christians were reduced to servitude and forbidden to preach their faith to Muslims. It was during this period that many Christians in the Holy Land adopted Arabic as their spoken language. Christianity did not die out all together during the Muslim rule. Several Christian sects including the Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, Copts and Ethiopian Orthodox survived. The Palestinian Christian community began to form a recognizable identity. The Crusaders came and went; the various Muslim rulers also rose and fell but the Christians remained faithful to the Biblical sits of the Holy Land and continued to worship in Bethlehem.
Christians in Bethlehem
The Christians of Bethlehem were gradually integrated into the Arab society adopting the Arab language, culture and identity. A large number of the Bethlehem Christian inhabitants were already of ethnic Arab descent. Two large Bethlehem Arab Christian clans traced their ancestry back to the Ghassaids clans who originated in Yemen and Jordan. Under Ottoman rule Christians made up 60% of the Bethlehem population in the 16th century. In 1867 an American visitor to Bethlehem wrote that the population of 3,000-4,000 was comprised on approximately 100 Protestants, 300 Muslims, a few Armenians and the rest were affiliated to the Latin or Greek Church with no Jewish inhabitants.
Christianity in Palestine in the 20th Century
In 1948 Bethlehem was home to 85% Christians, mostly of Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic denomination, with 13% Muslims and the remaining 2% unspecified. In 1967 Bethlehem had 14,439 residents of which 46.1% were Christians and the rest Muslim.
In 1993 the Palestinian authority took over control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip gaining limited self-government. Since the PA took over the West Bank (including Bethlehem) the number of Christians in Bethlehem has dropped from 60% to 30% of the population. However the PA has done its best to draw Christian tourists to the city by investing millions in infrastructure, hotels and other tourist facilities.
Over recent years the number of Christians in the entire Palestinian Authority area has been declining. Where as in 1922 Christians made up a tenth of the Palestinian population in 2010 they comprised only 1% of the mainly Muslim population. Many factors have gone towards the declining number of Christians in Palestine; the economic situation in Palestine and the regional conflict are two major contributing factors. The flailing economic situation, the ongoing conflict, low birth rate among Palestinian Christians, uncertainty about the future of Israel and Palestine and the fact that the Christians in Palestine are living among a majority of Muslims who are not always tolerant. For this reason many Christian Palestinians often look else ware for a place to raise their children. Many have immigrated to the US, UK and other European countries.
However there are other Christian Palestinians who see things differently. Some choose to stay in the Holy Land because they see themselves as the Christian link to the Holy Biblical sites. In a country almost 100% Muslim, which stands alongside a country with 74.9% Jews these Christians feel it is their calling to maintain the connection between Christians and the Holy sites. They see it as a privilege to live in the birthplace of Christ and are proud of their heritage as Christians of the Holy Land. On the other side of the border in Israel there are Christians who live in the predominantly Jewish State. In Israel the Christian communities tend to reside around the famous Biblical New Testament sites like Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Christian Life in Bethlehem Today
In Bethlehem Christian families are the majority landowners. They are often subject to theft and attack by the majority Muslims but in some areas the two groups live in harmony sharing a strong sense of local identity. The Christians of Bethlehem are very aware of maintaining their demographic presence and preserving their heritage in the city of Christ’s birth. It is really only when small groups of Islamic extremists decide to persecute the Christian community that there is trouble. Islam is the official religion of the Palestinian authority and Christians in Bethlehem are tolerated.
Bethlehem Christians and Muslims live side by side, both benefiting from the incoming Christian tourists. The Christian minority owns many of the hotels, restaurants, cafés and stores in Bethlehem which cater to the Christian tourists. When there is unrest in the region and tourism wanes the Christians of Bethlehem have a hard time making a living. They rely so heavily on the tourist traffic that their livelihood is affected forcing many Christians from Bethlehem to consider leaving the city. Since the period of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) 10% of Christians have left the city and today the majority of Palestinian Christians live in the Diaspora.
It is only natural that many Christians born and bred in Bethlehem should be drawn into the Christian tourist industry. More than 20% of the local working population is employed in the tourist industry and Christian tourism makes up about 65% of the city’s economy. Many Bethlehem Christians are involved in tourism, souvenirs, hotels, restaurants, tourist services like taxis and buses plus the production of traditional Biblical or Holy Land products. Many Christians in Bethlehem work to produce the traditional Palestinian Christian handcrafts like olive wood carvings of Jesus, crucifix pendants, manger scenes and statues of the Holy Family.
The Christians of Bethlehem remain symbolically important to the international Christian community. The First Baptist Church in Bethlehem is the largest congregation in Palestine with approximately 300 members. Since Jesus, the first Christian on Earth, was born in Bethlehem his legacy has remained an integral part of the city’s identity and it looks likely to continue no matter what politics, economy or social issues challenge Bethlehem’ faithful Christians.