Bethlehem Christians Worry About Islamic Takeover in Jesus' Birthplace

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:05pm EDT

Bethlehem, West Bank ( - Christians in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, are concerned that their city may slowly become an Islamic stronghold following recent municipal elections in which radical Islamic groups took a number of seats.

For the first time ever, Bethlehem's municipal council now includes members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. With seven seats between them, Muslims have a near majority in the 15-seat council.

Christian candidates from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine share the remaining eight seats that are allotted to the Christians.

Christians are upset because the newly elected members will want to give a more Muslim religious tone to the municipality, said one Christian Arab with ties to Bethlehem.

People voted for Hamas because it is "being perceived as more pure, more clean," said the Christian from Jerusalem, who asked not to be named. "[People] are angry over the corruption [in the P.A.]."

Bethlehem, a once-thriving, predominantly Christian town with a booming tourist trade and easy access to jobs in neighboring Jerusalem, now has high unemployment, cut off as it is by more than four years of violent uprising and now by Israel's security barrier.

During what should have been the busiest time of the day, there were few people on the streets. Even though the sun was shining, many shops were shuttered.

Such circumstances provide fertile ground for Hamas, which draws the needy into the fold by providing social, educational and other services.

One Christian leader in Bethlehem said he was "very concerned" about the radical Islamic win in the municipal council.

"It will affect [the community] in the future," said the man, who asked not to be named. "Slowly, slowly they will take over [and] have Palestine as an Islamic state."

Hamas is working very aggressively on gaining control, he said. "That's dangerous."

Thirty years ago no one in the city had ever heard of Hamas; now more than 30 percent of the city is Hamas and it's growing every year. They have the money. They help people open shops and build apartments, he said.

"They have the means to draw people close to them," he said, and once the people begin to attach themselves to Hamas, then they fall under its influence.

"The Christians are sleeping. I blame the West for that. They are encouraging these groups in an indirect way," he said.

About 150,000 Palestinians live in the greatere Bethlehem area, which includes the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala as well as a number of outlying villages. Only about 25,000 of those Palestinians are Christian - less than 20 percent of the residents of the municipality.

In 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day war, more than 60 percent of the area was Christian.

More than 5,000 Christians have left the city during the last few years, primarily for economic reasons, while the so-called Christian countries in the West gave all their money to the P.A., which was like giving it to the mafia, said the Bethlehem Christian.

"I couldn't find one Christian organization in the world [to help the Christians of Bethlehem]," he added.

'Hamas has the money'

Just a mile or so outside Bethlehem is the village of Jenata, where Islamic parties won most of the municipal seats.

Kamal Asakra was one of four Fatah representatives to win a seat in Jenata. The other seven seats of the eleven-member council went to radical Islamic groups Hamas (5) and Islamic Jihad (2).

Jenata, a village of some 3,000 residents, stretches over barren hill and valley. The only green is the occasional olive grove or grape arbor. Children play along the narrow, dusty roads.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are our friends, Kamal said. We studied at school together and live together, he added.

Kamal, who used to drive a taxi, said he ran in the elections because he wants to work. There are no jobs in Jenata, he said. He has three sons. He said he'd like to have more children, but the financial situation is just too difficult.

He, like many Palestinians, used to make his living at least in part by traveling to Jerusalem.

"We hope everything [will be] good but I think it's too difficult," he said.

Ibrahim Asakra, a distant relative of Kamal's, represented Islamic Jihad and won a seat in the Jenata council. Dressed in a long white robe, beard and turban, Ibrahim said he regards his new position as a great responsibility and sees it as an opportunity to help and serve the people.

He wants to make the roads better, build new classrooms, purchase an ambulance for the town and establish a free medical clinic. He also has plans for an agricultural project and trying to create jobs for the residents, but that would take a lot of money, he said.

"The situation here is very difficult," Alsakra said through a translator. "We want to see all the people very happy, not miserable."

The previous municipality was very weak. People are looking for someone who will give them something, he said. It is Islam that will give life and help to the people, said Ibrahim. Islam is not responsible for the terrorists around the world, he insisted.

(Islamic Jihad along with Hamas has been responsible for some of the deadliest suicide bombing and terror attacks during the last five years.)

Everything depends on the money flow, said Kamal. The P.A. is too weak here, and has no money, said Kamal.

When Kamal campaigned for his municipal seat, the Fatah party paid only for his picture in the campaign brochure, he said. His campaign pledges to the voters -- that he would improve the roads and schools -- were conditional on whether or not "the money comes," he said.

"If the money is coming we want to [build] schools and streets," said Kamal. "The decision is in the hand of Hamas. Hamas has the money."

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