(this is a piece i wrote for my school newsletter but thought i’d share it on here, you can probably expect more posts about Bethlehem)
Towards the end of last November I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend 11 days decorating Manger Square in Bethlehem, one of the most religious sites in the world. Bethlehem is located in the West Bank; a part of Palestine predominantly occupied by Muslims however Christian communities co-exist here. I was aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before my visit, however, it was during my trip that I realised the extent of these issues and the suffering many people undergo as a consequence. The West Bank is surrounded by a wall which, for its inhabitants, means restricted freedoms, difficulty in importing goods and making it hard to reach medical and educational services. Many of the Palestinians I spoke to told me they felt as if they lived ‘in a prison’, with some of them being continuously denied access through the Israeli controlled military checkpoints surrounding the West Bank.
The Bethlehem Development Foundation (BDF) seeks to reform Bethlehem by increasing tourism in order to improve the economy and create a better quality of living for its residents; this is their motivation to employ the ‘Christmas Decorators’, the company who invited me. According to Christian tradition Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and so it is unsurprising that each Christmas thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit Manger Square. Many people consider the Manger Square Christmas tree as one of the most iconic in the world and so we were a under great pressure to fulfil the wishes of the BDF. On the 6th December thousands of people gathered in Manger Square to watch the Christmas lights switch on and the beginning of the holiday celebrations, their 2014 Christmas festival adopted the slogan ‘All I want for Christmas is Justice.’ We all had our fingers crossed hoping all the lights would switch on, although it was fairly nerve wrecking everything went according to plan and it was an amazing experience. The US Wall Street journal voted our tree the 12th best in the world.
One thing that struck me about Bethlehem was the harmony in which the Muslims and Christians live in. Many Muslims attended the switch on and the appreciation we received from both Muslim and Christian people was, at times, mind-blowing. They view the Christmas decorations in Manger Square as not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also the birth of Palestine, since the 2012 declaration that Palestine was a state in its own right. They described the Christmas tree as ‘a gift’ and were extremely grateful for our work. Another thing that shocked me was how safe I felt during my visit. I admit that before I left I was worried about the conflict in Palestine and I, alongside my parents, was slightly concerned about my safety. However, I was made to feel extremely welcome and safe; the people of Bethlehem are some of the kindest I have ever met. I have made friends who will last a lifetime. Visiting Bethlehem was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Not only did I learn about the culture and people of Palestine but I also had the chance to bring happiness and hope to many people who have undergone a lot of suffering in recent years, I would love to return in the future