JERUSALEM: Dear Bethlehem,
As you know, we at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute are your neighbors to the north, inside the Green Line on the Palestinian side, but claimed by Israel as part of the Jerusalem municipality. We have, therefore, an ambiguous, neutral – but not indifferent – relation to you, our neighbors to the south. You also know that we gratefully employ many of you, from Bethlehem and your neighboring village Beit Jala, both Christian and Muslim. We seek to be a place welcoming to all, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. We join our voice in response to the World Council of Churches’ invitation to people from around the world to deliver messages and prayers of peace to you, the residents of Jesus’ birthplace.
In my country, the United States, many Christians have a custom of making a list of gifts which they eagerly hope Santa Claus will deliver at Christmas to celebrate Jesus’ birth. As I recall that custom and as I think of you, our neighbors to the south, many of whom are fellow Christians, I offer the following list of things I want very much for you and for us.
1. For you who live in the West Bank and work in Israel, I pray that you will be blessed with smooth passage through the checkpoint, ease of obtaining your magnetic cards and work permits, and a lengthening of these permits from three months to one year;
2. For a multiplication of graced movements at the checkpoint when both Israeli soldiers and you Palestinian workers will recognize, and honor, the humanity of the other – captured in those unforced and serendipitous moments when a flash of human recognition from one to the other provokes an unexpected smile on the face of the other;
3. That the hostility and fear that provoked the building of the wall on your north side, may melt into the beginnings of cooperation for peace and prosperity on both sides;
4. That this year’s tourism boom for your city, threatened by worldwide economic freefall, might continue to the benefit of all;
5. That the relatively good relations among many parts of the Christian family, and between the Christians and the Muslims of Bethlehem, might deepen and find new, stunning expressions;
6. That the many reconciliation initiatives that find their home in Bethlehem – some initiated by Muslims, others by Christians – might become better known and more effective – in the West Bank, in Israel, and indeed in the world so that the reputation of Bethlehem as a city of peace might be not only a memory, but, also in the present, a star leading others to peace;
7. For your well-deserved reputation for works of exquisite art – carefully, skillfully carved olive wood, precious mother-of-pearl artefacts, and Palestinian embroidery – continue to humanize your very difficult situation and enchant those who purchase them, both in person and through the internet;
8. For opportunities for you and Israelis to come together as human beings – no, more accurately as brothers and sisters – in order to speak your truth to one another, to get to know one another as human beings, and to prepare the ways for peace; may your ears be large for listening compassionately and your tongues be clear for speaking your truth;
9. Finally, I pray that this Christmas season might be the precise moment to raise up leaders of vision, courage, and imagination to inspire the peoples of Bethlehem and surrounding villages to cooperate creatively among themselves, with their West Bank and Gaza compatriots, and with their Israeli neighbors.
These things I pray for you; these are what I wish for you. Fortunately, most of them are gifts which you can give to one another and to the world. They are not simply unrealistic gifts to drop down from heaven, but they are blessings whose seeds already find a place in your heart.
Is this list realistic? Perhaps not. No more than a child born in your back alleyways might be Prince of Peace. But forget realism. This is the moment for peace precisely because it is beyond the realistic: it is a list of prayers for gifts you deserve and gifts short of which there will be no peace.
From your brother close to the checkpoint,
Michael McGarry, Rector, Tantur Ecumenical Institute
Father Michael McGarry, C.S.P. is now in his tenth year as rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).