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Bethlehem: Place of Jesus’ Birth and Dinner with Friends

Bethlehem, Palestine

Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity marks the site of Jesus’ birth — a holy site for Christians and Muslims, who both consider Jesus and Mary to be prophets. We visit a church and a mosque facing the same square and have dinner with a Christian Palestinian family whose roots here go back two thousand years.

Complete Video Script

Just across the Israel/Palestine border from Jerusalem stands Bethlehem. Like border towns between rich and poor lands all over the world, each day workers with special passes cross the wall from here for higher-paying jobs in the far more affluent Israel. While most Palestinians can’t cross, foreign visitors generally breeze right through.

As long as times are calm, the West Bank’s wide open for the adventurous traveler. You don’t need a visa, the currency is the same as Israel, good guidebooks lead the way, and you certainly won’t find any tourist crowds.

Taxis await just across the wall, and in minutes we’re in Bethlehem.

No longer just the little town of Christmas-carol fame, Bethlehem is a leading Palestinian city. While beloved among Christians as the place where Jesus was born, it’s now a predominantly Muslim town. Its thriving old center is a classic Arab market. The main square bustles with commerce. And the traffic circle comes with a memorial to locals doing time in Israeli prisons. Here, immersed in a sea of Palestinian people going about their daily lives, preconceptions can be challenged.

Bethlehem’s skyline is a commotion of both crescents and crosses — a reminder that the town, while now mostly Muslim, still has many Christians. While all Palestinians are Arabs, not all Palestinians are Muslims. In fact, many are Arab Christians.

Nativity Square [Manger Square] marks the center of Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity is built upon the spot believed to be where Jesus was born.

Inside, you feel the history. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, had this church built in 326. The mosaic floor of that original fourth-century church is about three feet below today’s floor. In the 12th century, that’s 800 years later, Crusaders ornamented much of the nave with paintings and mosaics.

A steady stream of pilgrims and tourists come here from all across Christendom to remember that first Christmas, and to pray on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.

Many assume Palestinian or Arab Christians were converted in modern times. But, in fact, their Christian roots go all the way back to the time of Christ. By the way, a century ago, about 20 percent of all Palestinians were Christian. Today, that number’s down to less than 2 percent. And most of those live here in Bethlehem.

Along with Christians, Muslims are also drawn to this holy site. In fact, for over a thousand years, a mosque has stood just across the square, facing the Church of the Nativity. It’s Friday and Muslims have gathered to pray.

We’re joined by my friend and local guide Kamal Mukarkar to get the most out of this opportunity to better understand Palestine and its people.

Rick: So there’s churches but there’s mosques, also, in Bethlehem?
Kamal: Bethlehem is a very holy city for the Muslims as well as the Christians. For the Muslims, Jesus is their second important prophet. They also believe in Mary; they worship her. She has a whole section in the Koran justnamed after her.
Rick: A whole book in the Koran, named after Mary?
Kamal: Yes exactly, and that’s why she very important for them.

Kamal coaches a girls’ basketball team — his stars are both Christians and Muslims…and we’re rooting them on.

After the game, we’re dropping by Kamal’s place to meet his family and enjoy an evening together. It’s typical in Palestinian culture that many generations live under the same roof. We’re meeting Kamal’s mother, fiancée, his sister, and her children.

After some good conversation in the living room, Kamal’s mother calls us to the dinner table. She’s cooked up a classic local stew.

Rick: Hey, can you explain, Kamal, what are we having here?
Kamal: We are having a tagine, which is so many different kind of vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, aubergines, and peppers.
Rick: And what kind of meat?
Kamal: Beef.
Rick: I think it’s impossible for a traveler to be hungry in Palestine. The food just keeps on coming!
Woman: Yes, and you have to keep something in your plate, ’cause if you don’t keep something in your plate — food — you’ll get another time food.
Second woman: They will think that you’re still hungry.
Rick: No wonder! Because I’m gaining weight. I need two airplane seats to fly home.

As I’ve learned over and over, getting into a home reminds me how much people everywhere have in common. And sharing a meal gives a wonderful insight into the everyday lives of new friends in faraway places.

Rick: I think this is a beautiful, beautiful welcome here.
Kamal’s mother: Sahtein.
Rick: And what does that…?
Kamal’s mother: Bon appétit..
Rick: Sahtein.
Kamal’s mother: Sahtein.
Kamal: Translated, it’s “cheers to your health twice,” like two times for your health.
Rick: Two times for your health. Sahtein. Mmm, this is beautiful.