Operation restore hope
Claire Smith reports from Bethlehem, where a project for children aims to sow seeds of hope among a generation growing up amid crisis and despair
The place of Jesus’ birth is today a place of unemployment and poverty, where the church is dwindling and the backdrop is one of aggression and violence. The separation barrier, which went up in Bethlehem in 2005, depresses life in an insistent way, cutting off communities and generating a pervading sense of isolation and helplessness.
At a small church about a mile or so from Bethlehem’s much-visited Church of the Nativity, Father Boulos Armleh sips from a cup of strong Arabic coffee as he reflects on the challenges of life for Palestinian Christians.
“Life here is dead,” he says. “Everywhere is depressed. There’s no hope, no future and no life here. Instead, there’s depression and helplessness.”
He’s seen numbers of attendees at his church drop off rapidly over the past decade, as so many families leave in search of a better life overseas.
“As the priest at the church, I am approached by so many Christian families requesting help and we simply can’t meet the need. Eighty five per cent of the families that attend this church have problems with finances and employment.
“Leading a church in Bethlehem, so close to the place where Jesus was born, I do feel a responsibility. But with the depression, the helplessness and the need in this community, I feel limited.”
But in this troubled town, there’s an oasis of joy. School holiday Bible camps and Christmas and Easter church activities are bringing hope to Palestinian Christians. The message of the Gospel – a sharp contrast to the division and segregation endemic across the West Bank – is taking root.
At the YMCA youth camp in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, 21 eight and nine-year-olds are starting off their Bible session with some energetic Christian songs, all with actions. Volunteer Sally Baranseh then tells the story of blind Bartimaeus, who was healed by Jesus.
“… So Bartimaeus opened his eyes and looked around and for the first time in his life, he saw,” says Sally. “And do you think he just went home and had a rest after that? No, he started thanking Jesus.” Afterwards, she quizzes the children on what they’ve heard. Hands shoot up to answer.
These youngsters are among 180 attending the four-week camp, which runs every weekday morning. Ten-year-old Saliba Manoly has been a couple of times before and loves it. Last year, he was given a children’s Bible, and he says he reads it every night. “I like the story of the Resurrection because it was a miracle,” Saliba says. He adds: “I feel joyful about living near Bethlehem because I live near a place that’s holy.”
The camps don’t just run in Bethlehem. Across the West Bank, around 5,000 children every year are reached by the Child of Bethlehem project. Visiting the Bible camps means driving through checkpoints and passing the angry graffiti daubed across the separation barrier. Arriving is like stepping into a haven of fun, laughter, colour and life.
At a camp in Bir Zeit, north of Jerusalem, children are busy gluing cotton wool to toilet rolls to make sheep for a farmyard. Others are reading the parable of the Good Samaritan to prepare for their visit to Jericho, where the man in the story was heading when he was robbed.
Seven-year-old Laith Shehda is attending the camp for the second year and says: “I love the stories of Jesus that we learn. I have a book of Bible stories that I got from camp, and my sister and I read it together. Whenever I come to this camp, they tell me about Jesus, so he is in my heart.”
His mum Aimy, 35, adds: “Laith comes home each day and tells me all about the Bible story he’s learnt. All my older children have come through these camps, and benefited so much.” She knows Laith’s prospects will be limited as he grows up, but she hopes he “will grow up to be a righteous person with an active faith”.
Aimy says: “Life here is tough. My husband works very few days, and during the winter there’s hardly any work. Because of the separation wall, we feel very isolated. Even your thinking becomes limited.”
Back in Jerusalem, Nashat Filmon, director of the Palestinian Bible Society, is responsible for running the Child of Bethlehem project. His vision is to give children an alternative to what’s all around them as they grow up in the West Bank, an alternative full of hope and life.
“Children in the West Bank lack three main things: a sense of security, a sense of playfulness and fun, and the input of values different from those they receive from television and the media,” says Nashat.
“We want to have a generation of Palestinian children who have been subjected to good biblical values, who know where to find the living water and who have experienced that. What we are doing is planting seeds in good soil, in children.”
He says it will be years before the impact of this work is seen, but he believes it is critical for the future of Palestinian Christians. In the meantime, he points towards the smiles and joy on the faces of children like Laith and Saliba as a reason to persevere with the mission to restore hope to the place of Christ’s birth.
Claire Smith is a freelance journalist
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.