Far fewer pilgrims and tourists are visiting Bethlehem this Christmas season than in recent years – despite that city’s eternal promise of peace. Talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down last April, leading to random stabbings by frustrated Palestinians and subsequent shootings of the attackers by Israeli soldiers. More than 140 people have been killed, including four in Bethlehem. Many of the traditional Christmas festivities in Bethlehem have been canceled to honor the victims. Contributing to the dearth of visitors are recent terrorist attacks by followers of Islamic State in the Middle East, France, and California.
Yet the symbolism of Bethlehem – the place where Christians believe Jesus was born to Mary – never seems to disappoint.
In the city’s ancient Church of the Nativity, restorers from Italy have prepared a special unveiling this Christmas. For the first time in centuries, visitors will be able to clearly see the bright mosaics of oversized angels along the ceiling. These works of art were created in the 12th century and made of glass, gold, and pearl. Long damaged by roof leaks and candle soot, the mosaics were originally designed at just the right angle to reflect light down on visitors, illuminating their path of worship.
Now that light will shine again.
While the material beauty in the 1,700-year-old basilica provides a hint of the spiritual joy in the message of Christ, the restored mosaics are only part of the story. The building itself was a remarkable collaboration between feuding Christian leaders in medieval times. And now the church’s restoration, begun in 2013, is also an unusual collaboration between the Palestinian Authority and the three Christian denominations that maintain joint custody of the site. The full restoration is expected to be completed in three years, requiring at least $25 million in international donations.
Such examples of cooperation across peoples are badly needed to help end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Vera Baboun, the first female mayor of Bethlehem and a Christian, says that until peace returns to Bethlehem, no place in the world will be at peace. At a recent conference in Washington, she said an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will require “compromises from everybody.”
The diplomacy for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may have stalled for now. Yet a light of peace still shines down in holy site of Bethlehem, a light that still speaks to many of eternal peace.