Concerned about the future of their holy sites once Israeli troops withdraw from Palestinian towns and cities on the West Bank, 1,000 Christian pilgrims flocked to Bethlehem this week to demand continued Israeli sovereignty over what they termed the “Biblical Land of Israel.”
In a rally punctuated with singing and prayer on Sunday, the Christian demonstrators expressed fear that the Palestinian Authority would not safeguard the rights of Christians to pray at their holy sites.
Most of the demonstrators were in Israel to take part in the International Christian Embassy’s annual Feast of Tabernacles.
Several of those interviewed noted that under the terms of the Interim Agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinians in Washington on Sept. 28, authority over Bethlehem will be handed over the Palestinians just before Christmas.
Waving banners proclaiming that “Bethlehem Will Be Jewish Forever,” the pilgrims were joined by several Jewish residents of the West Bank who voiced their own concerns about an Israeli redeployment.
Said Yigal Klein, a 17-year-old resident of Gilo, located near Jerusalem, “Gilo is right next to Bethlehem, and one day very soon the army won’t be here. This isn’t just a Jewish issue, so I’m pleased to see Christian supporters here in Bethlehem.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat who has led often-stormy settler protests against the Interim Agreement, told the crowd, “We welcome with all our hearts the confirmation that this is our land. The peace process has brought Jews and Christian believers closer than ever.”
Though some of the participants called the gathering an apolitical prayer meeting, the majority openly expressed concern about the Palestinian Authority’s ability – and desire – to safeguard Bethlehem and other West Bank sites.
“We are concerned about Christian sites falling into Arab hands,” said Jim Ibale from the Philippines. “We can’t be sure if they will allow us to visit them.
“As Christians, we are here today to support Israel and to pray for peace,” he added. “Those who bless Israel will also be blessed.”
Referring to the belief, held by many Christians, that Jesus’ Second Coming will occur only after the Jews have returned to Zion, International Christian Embassy spokesman Jan Willem van der Hoeven said, “If we give up Bethlehem, we will not see the prophesy.”
Van der Hoeven also expressed fears over the safety of the West Bank’s Christian minority if self-rule is extended throughout the territories.
“In Lebanon, we saw Christians murdered by Arafat’s men. Thousands of Christians have been raped and killed,” he said.
The Rev. Jesse Stines, from Elk Park, N.C., concurred: “I believe Christians are in danger because of Muslim attitudes. Christians are persecuted in most countries, so why should it be any different here?”