CHAPTER 6: CHRISTIAN WAYS OF LIFE
The town of Bethlehem has always been a source of inspiration for Christian believers, and over time it has attracted many to come and visit. In the first centuries after Christ was born it was primarily visitors from abroad who took residence in Bethlehem. Later on the village would also become a focal point for a growing Christian Arab population served by foreign churches and orders. What did it mean for Christians to visit Bethlehem, or to stay and live there?
In this chapter we will look at three eras which, although differing considerably in duration, represent various ways of Christian witnessing. First, the monastic movement which occurred during the Byzantine and early Islamic period; secondly, the charity-oriented work of orders which was established in Bethlehem from the mid-19th century onward, and, thirdly, the voice of local Arab Christianity which was present during and after the Palestinian Uprising, the Intifada. In each case Christians attempted to define their presence and practice in relation to the circumstances in which they lived and in relation to what they held to be the message of Bethlehem or the Holy Land. We will provide a glimpse of some of their lives - lives of saints as well as common people - through the stories told by them or written about them.
After the arrival of Emperor Constantine's mother Queen Helena who found the True Cross in Jerusalem and who established the first Palestinian churches in the beginning of the fourth century, Palestine became a focus for thousands of pilgrims coming from all corners of the world. During feast days Jerusalem and Bethlehem were truly international meeting points with liturgies held in many tongues. Pilgrims came to imagine the life of Jesus in the natural setting in which He had lived. They saw and touched the places where according to the early church fathers or local traditions the happenings of the Old and New Testament had taken place.
A Holy Land?
The arrival of so many devout pilgrims created a vexed question for the church. If Christ's message was that Christianity was not related to a place but was intended for every human being in the world, how then to judge a practice which considered the land and its relics as holy? Early church fathers had different, sometimes rather paradoxical ways of dealing with the question.
Take Jerome, the most renowned visitor of Bethlehem who is presently commemorated by an imposing sculpture in the courtyard of St Catherine's Church nearby the place where he worked on the Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome had arrived to establish himself in Bethlehem at a time, in 386 AD, when he was considered the leading theologian in the Christian world. He was accompanied by two Roman ladies, Paula and her daughter Eustochium, who would employ their considerable wealth to establish monasteries and a hostel in Bethlehem. With their help he devoted himself to a life of study and translation until he died in Bethlehem nearly eighty years old.
On the theological level, he did not encourage Christian believers to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for its own sake; rather, he advocated that Christians should follow the Christian way of living. Yet his very presence in Bethlehem just meters away from where Jesus was born suggested how important the concept of holy place was for him, at least privately.
Gregory of Nicea, another leading scholar at the time living in Constantinople and one of the most influential theologians in the Orthodox church, said that "God had left a trace of Himself in Palestine" and that the land had thus received "the footprints of Life itself." By recounting God's incarnation on earth, Christian teaching made it possible to think about the physical as sacred. Applied to the Holy Land, it was as if the land itself somehow bore the effects or - in the Orthodox manner of saying - the "energies" of the divine. Yet Gregory of Nicea was later on also frequently quoted by those Christians who held reservations with respect to the idea of pilgrimage. In Gregory's opinion, one could do mass, perform one's ministry or mission, or conduct a Christian way of living anywhere in the world without feeling guilt for not having visited the holy places of Jesus.
Pilgrimage as learning experience
Not all opinions on the matter were informed by theological reasoning only. There were also mundane considerations that directed these and other Church fathers towards allowing or encouraging pilgrimage. For one thing, they surely recognized that memories which are purely mental do not last. It is a well-known pedagogic principle that one has to see, imagine and touch things in order to develop and sustain knowledge. This applies to believers too. The pilgrimage was a learning experience that could be remembered for over a life and which allowed others to share in it through communication back home. In this way pilgrimage helped to root and spread Christianity. Church authorities living in the Holy Land itself could not be expected to downplay such an important contribution to the world church.
Most visibly, many pilgrims showed themselves being transformed by partaking in a pilgrimage. Not only were they able to imagine Jesus' life against the physical background of the land, they also seemed to trespass the limitations of time by imaginatively participating in the events of Jesus' life itself. Their ecstatic experience could not but leave a deep emotional impression on the participant as well as the observers. When Jerome accompanied Paula on her pilgrimage journey across the land, he unconditionally admired her dramatic veneration of the sites. In his view, the sites were like momentary channels of receiving God's grace.
Another renowned church father of the time, Augustine, similarly seemed to have accepted, despite theological reservations, the practice of pilgrimage. Living in North Africa at the other end of the Mediterranean, he had little patience with the idea that a particular piece of land was holier than another. How could God limit His possession to a small part of the earth? Yet at one point he met a pilgrim who had just returned from the Holy Land, and who brought with him some earth from Jerusalem. The pilgrim asked Augustine if he could build a small shrine above this earth so as to chase evil spirits away. Augustine answered in the affirmative. One is tempted to ask: If even the earth was holy, how then could the land itself not be?
In the course of the following centuries Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land became a well-defined practice, and a number of favored holy places and associated itineraries became accepted and encouraged by the church. Those pilgrims, who, like Jerome, chose to stay, faced another, more principled question: what was the right way of living in the Holy Land?
The answers were varied. Many monks stayed in monasteries in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and followed a devout monastic life not so different from that occurring in other convents of the time. However, new models attracted followers, too. Spiritually, monastic life in Bethlehem was influenced by the life of the earliest desert fathers in Egypt, primarily Anthony. Written by the monk Anastasios in the mid-fourth century, "The Life of St Anthony" became an instant bestseller in the Christian world and was copied and translated in many languages. Thousands of religious persons and monks traveled to Palestine and stayed there inspired by Anthony's example.
In looking for a place to live, some early monastic leaders chose for remote caves in the desert east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and lived there on wild plants and water from the wells that were known by the Bedouins. When the pioneers were subsequently followed by other groups of monks, they adopted Egyptian forms of monastic organization that were in their turn inspired by the communal model of the early church. One of the first pioneers seems to have been a monk named Chariton who in the early fourth century established monasteries in Wadi Kilt alongside the Jericho-Jerusalem road and in Wadi Khreitoun to the east of Bethlehem - "Khreitoun" being the Arabic name for Chariton. Presently, it is still possible to observe the remainders of the monastery in Wadi Khreitoun, including the "hanging cave" of Chariton himself, to be reached by ladder or rope, as well as the caves in which the monks used to live their Spartan lives.
At the time this particular monastery was called a "souqa." Souqa may refer to the Arabic "suq" or market. Indeed, Chariton organized the dwellings of the monks according to the design of a market, with pathways along the valley ridges leading to various cell-caves or "shops" in the rocks where the monks lived a solitary life. On Saturdays they assembled in the central monastery to collect their products of a week, often ropes or baskets - products of handicrafts that allowed continuous praying. There they also did mass on Sundays, and ate and mingled. The common center included a bakery house, cisterns and a church. On the Sunday evening they returned to their hermit's caves, taking with them palm-blades for a week's work, as well as water, bread and dates. The Wadi Khreitoun monastery continued to function up until the 13th century.
What exactly motivated these monks? Although from the distant viewpoint of a society affected by consumerism and materialism it may seem puzzling to give up family, work and possible luxury, many of these monks single-mindedly followed the radical call of Jesus: "Go and sell all that one has, and give to the poor, and follow me." They were often specifically attracted to live in the Holy Land, like Abraham following Yahweh's call: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to that land I show you." Both John the Baptist and Jesus provided powerful models. By going into the wilderness, the monks wanted not just to purify themselves from sin, but also from any thoughts, passions, concerns or fears that could hinder access to God. The desert and countryside of Bethlehem and Jerusalem provided the needed tranquility.
Next to Chariton, a second early pioneer was the Armenian Euthymius, about whom there are more reports. He established no less than 15 monasteries in the desert east of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, some of these located down all the way to Masada at the southern part of the Dead Sea. According to his biographer, the native Palestinian Cyril, he and other desert fathers were used to annually take a fasting retreat in the desert immediately after the feast of Epiphany on January 6. They took with them trowels for digging food such as the "wild honey" eaten by John the Baptist. During such retreats, the pioneer-monk would point out a suitable place for erecting a monastery.
The most daring monks stayed in the deep desert for the full time of Lent, walking the hills alongside the Dead Sea and the river Jordan from the south to the north and back. Sometimes they seemed to be lost, to re-appear later on. Despite its harshness, the desert allowed monks like Chariton and Euthymius to reach a golden age of over 80 or 90 years. Apparently desert conditions were compatible with a healthy physical lifestyle. No doubt, the monks had frequent contact with the local Bedouins who saved them from starvation or thirst. Once, after healing the illness of a Bedouin man, Euthymius converted to the Christian faith the tribe to which the man belonged. Its leader would ultimately become a bishop and head of a local monastery in what is now the Israeli settlement Ma'aleh Adumim northeast of Jerusalem.
The desert a city
At the height of the monastic movement there were no less than 3,000 monks in the desert of Bethlehem/Jerusalem - "the desert a city" in the words of one author. Two later contemporaneous monks from Cappadocia had a special share in this expansion. Living in the desert east of Bethlehem, the monks Sabas and Theodosios each represented a different style of monastic life. As two of the most important saints of the Christian East, they are depicted on adjacent columns in the Church of the Nativity with the following words added to Sabas' picture: "Who shall subdue the belly and tongue shall also be saved," a motto which well applies to the lives of hermits in general.
Sabas, born in 439, followed Anthony's and Euthymius' examples, and continued to explore the desert. After being instructed by a vision, he stayed for five years in a cave in Wadi Kidron assisted by local Bedouins with bread, water and dates. Once he heard, during full moon, the hoofs of a donkey trampling upon the ground. He took a trowel, went to the place, and dug the earth away to discover the living water of a well. There he built a church and assembled monks who stayed in his "laura." Like Chariton they lived solitary in caves during the week, and in community during the Saturday and the Sunday. Since then, the monastery "Mar Saba" (Aramaic for St. Sabas) has known an unbroken monastic presence. Up till this day, the monks live an austere life there, with one meal a day (including bread, baked once a week, soup, boiled vegetables, and no meat) and without the modern luxury of electricity. Sabas saw the "colonization of the desert" as a way of precipitating the Day of Judgment and the redemption. If we may believe the modern travel writer Delrymple, the monks in Mar Saba still point to Wadi Kidron, snaking down in front of them, as the place where, during the Day of Judgment, the sinners will float to hell.
During his lifetime, Sabas would disappear in the desert for weeks or months and people feared for his life. At the same time he could authoritatively intervene in dogmatic discussions or represent the monks or local inhabitants of the Holy Land in dealings with the Byzantine Emperor. Once he arrived in rags at the Emperor's palace in Constantinople and was forbidden to enter, as the guard did not recognize him. When in the late fifth century Emperor Anastasios took sides with the Monophysites -- the Christian streaming which did not recognize the dual nature of Jesus Christ as God and human being -- Sabas was appointed by the local monks to represent the case of the Orthodox in front of the court. Later on, after the Samaritans burned the Church of the Nativity in 529 AD, he was sent on a successful errand to Constantinople to plea for the church's rebuilding and for other practical issues concerning the local Churches. Like the other monastic leaders he established a symbolic presence among the believers through the many stories, miracles and sayings attributed to him. Such charisma no doubt added to the attractiveness of the monk. According to his biographer, during one visit to the Emperor he was approached to stay the night with the Emperor's wife, a request he politely declined.
For the desert hermits, meditation and prayer were the essential fulfillments of life. However, the hermit's lifestyle was not suitable for all newcomers, certainly not in the initial stages. Some monks were even mentally inflicted by the desert or by ill-judged or excessive fasting. There is one report that says that there happened to be some "stylobates" in front of the Church of the Nativity, monks who stayed all day on a pillar, like the Syrian "Simon the Stylobate." Not many monks could bear such hardships. There once was a special convent to recuperate from problems resulting from an extreme lifestyle. Through a learning process, the monks found out that a more communally organized monastery, the "coenobium," was an essential complement to the demanding laura. The coenobium resembled the present-day monastery: the monks lived, worked and prayed together all days of the week.
Sabas' colleague, Theodosios, was the leader of this type of monastery organization. He came in 451 to Palestine. After a period of living in the desert he looked out for a place to build. Like Sabas and other pioneers he was informed by a miracle. While walking with a charcoal holder at the edge of the desert near present-day 'Ubeidiyyeh to the east of Bethlehem, the charcoal started to kindle at a particular spot. This spot he marked as the right place for the monastery. It was at that place, according to Theodosios, that the Wise Men who had visited the Holy Family had circumvented Jerusalem to avoid meeting Herod. Presently, the monastery is located near the Wadi Nar road, the way which Palestinians who do not have a permit to enter Jerusalem are obliged to take in order to travel around the city.
Theodosios built the largest monastery in the Holy Land of the time. Through the communal form of the coenobium it was possible to set up other work than small handicraft. He especially focused on charity. Thus, the monastery not only contained a refectory and church, but also a hospital, a hostel for monks and other visitors, a home for the elderly, and a separate monastery for the mentally affected monks about whom we spoke earlier. During times of draught and famine, no less than 100 tables with food served the poor and needy. Over 400 monks lived in the place. The monastery's services were part of a more general social infrastructure located at the edge of the desert. Among those services, there was a hospice and hospital in Jericho, established by a relative of Sabas, while the wife of the fifth-century Emperor Theodosios, Eudochia, built a leper hospital near Herodion. Legends showed the miraculous healing of the sick and the multiplication of loaves taking place once again.
Desert life and imagination
Indeed, legends abounded. Desert life invited divinely inspired imagination. Any visitor of the desert, even today, can testify to the powerful effect the desert can have on one's mind. The stark beauty inspires and overwhelms. In such a setting it is possible to experience the redeeming love of God's creation. By implication, the people living in the desert could be seen as living prototypes or icons of such redemption.
We have many so-called hagiographical writings about the life of the desert fathers. Such writings tend to embellish the lives of the monks, not for the purpose of entertainment but rather to articulate various sacred concepts. One example is the image of the Garden of Eden in which men and beasts live peacefully together. The monks, in establishing a simple "primitive" pattern of life, seemed to have yearned to somehow reach the state of Eden
before the Fall, the wholesome peace of Paradise. The writings about the desert fathers are full of stories in which the monks show themselves establishing a peaceful relationship with the animals in the surroundings, even predatory ones like the lions, which then roamed the hills of Palestine. We meet saints who encounter a lion in the desert, whose wounds they heal, or who is instructed to share the saints' accommodation peacefully. Some of such images may have looked attractive to the newcomers and would perhaps have been an incentive to join the movement.
Yet we should take care not to romanticize the monks' way of living, and certainly not life in the desert. They were regularly attacked by wild animals and affected by plagues. Reality was also burdened by violence. The monasteries were buttressed with castles and walls to protect the inhabitants not just against thieves and marauders but also against unruly bands of monks embracing a rival theology. Moreover, monks were sometimes actively engaged in violence against non-Christian groups. They were said to raid popular festivals to demolish pagan practices. They also disturbed Jewish pilgrimages. When the empress Eudochia allowed Jews in 438 to enter Jerusalem more often than permitted at the time, there were Christian protests. Under the leadership of one monk named Barsauma a massacre was conducted among the visiting Jews. Afterwards, when the surviving Jews testified to the empress, then residing in Bethlehem, stormy demonstrations by the monks prevented her from taking any punitive action.
Since almost all the monks' writings naturally tended to advocate the monastic way of life, we know little about negative exceptions. Yet there were serious cases. For instance, after the Samaritans rose in revolt against Emperor Justinian in 529, and, among others, the Church of the Nativity was damaged, it seems that a high monk named Photion was sent by Justinian to administer punishment, resulting in, according to some sources, a toll of tens of thousands of massacred Samaritans. Such events show that generalizations about monastic life should be done carefully.
On the positive side of the balance, one lasting aspect of the monks' lives that is especially worth mentioning is their cosmopolitan outlook. Many monks led an inspiring traveling life. Examples are John Moschos, whose book "Spiritual Meadows" provides one of the best kaleidoscopes of Byzantine daily life, and Peter the Iberian, whose Monophysite beliefs led him to avoid the established Orthodox pilgrims' places and to travel by night. Peter's dedication still allowed him to build churches, including one at the hilltop north of Bethlehem, Abu Ghneim, the ruins of which can presently be seen among the infrastructure built for the new Israeli settlement which emerges there.
The cosmopolitan outlook is especially clear from the work of the resident monks in Palestine as well as Egypt, Syria, present-day Turkey and the Balkan. The monks studied, copied and translated manuscripts in the various ancient languages that were practiced, such as Armenian, Georgian and Syriac, which is, as we saw, close to Aramaic, the popular language at Jesus' time. Some monasteries and churches held special services for language communities. They hosted excellent composers of hymns and prayers.
Later on, after the advent of Islam, Arabic would become the major lingua franca in the area. According to Kenneth Bailey, due to the zealous work and study of the monks of the Middle East, the Christian teachings and writings in Arabic outnumber those in any other language, even Latin. Present-day scholars consider it a huge challenge to translate and edit even only the main Arabic Christian works written at the time.
John of Damascus
Here we must mention one name in particular. A towering figure among the monks of the early Islamic period was John of Damascus. Born in 675 AD as a son of the finance minister and director of Christian affairs of the Islamic state in Damascus, he grew up in the tolerant atmosphere of Moslem-Christian dialogue characteristic of the period. Like other theologians at the time, he devoted much of his work to defending Christianity against Islam, a new religion that had succeeded, in a period of only a few decennia, to reach out to millions of believers. Arriving in Palestine in 716, he resided in the Mar Saba monastery where he wrote the major works of his life, including the "Fountain of Knowledge" and a work in which he defended the practice of making icons. There is a separate cave in Mar Saba monastery which shows the workplace of John. With its low ceiling, it was said to instill a sense of humility on the great writer. Mar Saba's library, which has largely been transferred to the library of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, is a treasure of old theological writings and a witness to the immense wisdom and devotion of the monks living there.
The monks were geographical and social border-crossers with a universalist although sometimes dogmatic mind-set. They often lived harsh lives, especially when they stayed in the desert. It is a puzzling question to what extent they represented a masculine world. The famous pioneering monks were men. However, any reader of the period's history will be surprised to what extent monastic life was also shaped by women. Many women followed the example of the Virgin Mary who was a prototype of motherly warmth and love, and more than any other saint a source of inspiration for common people. It seems that Queen Helena's pilgrimage inspired women like Paula and her daughter to visit the Holy Land. Still many women in the Bethlehem area bear the name of "Helena". There is also the case of the famous Egeria, the Spanish nun whose report of her pilgrimage at the end of the fourth century would become the first piece of travel writing known in the West. Moreover, many women of the time stood at the forefront of charity efforts by building hospices and hospitals.
There is one thing that demands attention here, which we neglected due to a lack of sources: the presence of indigenous Christian believers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In her travel writings, Egeria takes special care to describe the liturgies, processions and other practices in which common local believers were involved. From her writings one gets a sense that the believers did not only include foreigners but also local worshippers who took part in witnessing Jesus' life and teachings. Contrary to the many adventurous visitors who seemed to have shunned the mundane daily life around them, Egeria gives an - admittedly general - account of the common worshippers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, many of them locals. She held not only the holy places and the land in high esteem but also the Christian people living there. And, in paying tribute to the women's role, let us finally not forget that without the devoted Paula and her financial and organizational contributions, we would not have known anything of Jerome's writings. In his daily life, he completely depended upon her, her daughter and her nuns.
One author (Rubenson) dealing with early monastic life in the Palestinian desert, states "it is difficult for us today, with modern national states and emphasis on ethnicity to imagine the cultural exchange in and natural cosmopolitan character of Palestine in the early Christian centuries... The plains and the Judean hills were plotted with monastic settlements whose inhabitants had no other national identity than their heavenly civitas or polis.... It seems as if it is only with the Crusades in the Middle Ages and with modern European expansion in the 19th century that the idea develops that people of different races, of different religion and different background are unable to live together."
It may be a tremendous leap to shift focus from early monasticism to the developments of the 19th century. Yet the shift provides some interesting contrasts in the perception of pilgrimage and what people considered exemplary ways of Christian living. Remember that during Moslem times Bethlehem emerged from a small village involved in various local feuds, but with a constant Christian presence over the ages, to becoming a fledgling little town that could significantly profit from the interest shown by the international powers of the day. The industrial revolution took place across Europe, and steamship, railway and mass media brought a new appearance to modern life.
Pilgrimage was similarly influenced. Westerners abroad read about the Holy Land in mass papers and magazines. Travel agencies, like the famous Thomas Cook Company in Britain, sold packaged tours in which believers could join groups, equipped with large tents, to walk and stay in the Holy Land. Again the question comes up: what motivated those pilgrims? Although the 19th century pilgrimage was not like the adventure of Byzantine times, the new pilgrims had to save a large amount of money in order to visit the Holy Land. The journey took normally no less than six months, including boat trips.
Differences in motivation
There were in fact great differences in motivation between the pilgrims of the 19th-century. The national churches entertained very different conceptions of pilgrimage. The Russian and Anglican Christians especially expressed the broad range of devotions. In a revealing comparison, Ruth and Thomas Hummel explain that, on one end of the scale, Russian pilgrims preserved the ancient tradition of pilgrimage as an almost mystical experience. These pilgrims, who from the mid-19th century on arrived every year by the thousands, were usually over fifty. Many had completed their working life. By visiting the locations of Jesus' birth, baptism, death and especially resurrection, they prepared themselves for life after death. The various churches in the Holy Land offered them an almost physical entrance to the divine, facilitated by the Orthodox icons, shrouds and liturgy.
This mystical experience was remote from the rationalist ethos of the Anglicans who, on the other side of the scale, could not see any intrinsic holy merit in the land, earth or relics of Palestine. Yet they understood the pragmatic advantages of a pilgrimage. They considered pilgrimage a suitable way of bringing back to life Jesus' mission. A visit to the Holy Land provided a unique opportunity to visualize the life and works of Jesus in the mind's eye. This pragmatic attitude coincided with a certain interest in the customs of the local population in so far as these reminded them of Biblical times. In the second half of the 19th century, pilgrims as well as writers and photographers started to document such customs. It was done in an amateurish way and with the sole purpose of establishing a dramatic cultural setting for the visitors' imagination. Individual exceptions aside, there was little interest in the indigenous Christians' way of life.
The cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem provided scenes of exotic interest. In Bethlehem the local Palestinian women, often fair-haired and considered "beautiful" by the western visitors, were photographed in a style and in settings that inevitably reminded the viewer of Biblical times. The pictures suggested that over 2,000 years life had not changed at all. Later on, with the advent of Zionism and the colonization of the land, the pictures and descriptions of customs started to contain an element of ambiguity. Ancient customs were "regretfully" being intruded upon by modern lifestyles.
The visitors' imagination tended to categorize the local inhabitants in a schematic way. "Christian" Bethlehem was for instance pitted against "Moslem" Hebron, the first being picturesque, pastoral, friendly, with signs of civilizational development; the second threatening, dangerous, and stagnant due to "fatalistic" Islam.
Such imagination was clearly tinged with imperialist notions of Western, Christian supremacy. In fact, various national churches urged to convert, in the name of progress and civilization, the Orthodox Palestinian Christians to Western forms of Christianity. Moreover, national states had an interest in using the Christians in the Holy Land as pawns in the complicated imperialist game then fought out over the slowly dying Ottoman Empire.
After the Crimean War had opened up the land for the presence of orders, Bethlehem's appearance changed radically. On the one hand, various orders arrived in Bethlehem with the backing of political power and often with little respect for the indigenous forms of Christian worship practiced by the population. On the other hand, the orders' and churches' practical influence was immense and developmentally positive. A quick look at the orders that entered Bethlehem, in chronological sequence, show the following institutions they established:
- The Franciscans (Terra Sancta): A school and an institution for vocational education (dating back to the 14th century but expanding in the 19th century)
- The Orders of the Nuns of St. Joseph: A school (1848)
- The Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate Seminary: A Christian school in Beit Jala to prepare locals for priesthood (1856)
- The Carmelite Sisters: A convent (1875)
- The Catholic Order of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle: The Frères School in 1876 (the predecessor of Bethlehem University)
- The Rosary Sisters, the first indigenous Catholic Order: Medical and social work and teaching (1885)
- The Franciscans - Immaculate Heart of Mary (White Sisters): Orphanage, kindergarten and handicrafts (1885)
- The Knights of Malta: The Holy Family Hospital (1889)
- The Sisters of Charity: The Crèche (1889)
- The Silesians: Vocational training, orphanage and winery (1863-1905)
- The Antonian Charitable Society, founded by Palestinians: A house for elderly women (1913).
For the Bethlehem community, the institutions and services were a major step forwards in more than one respect. They provided a much-needed infrastructure in the fields of education and health. At a time that Bethlehem and larger Palestine gradually opened up to the outside world, the schools contributed to the process called "nahda" (awakening). Education and contacts abroad helped building a cadre of native Palestinians who themselves could help building future society. In the course of the 19th and 20th century, the institutions would gradually include more native clergy and laity.
To get a sense of the times, it may be useful to focus on two human examples of Palestinians involved at an early stage in this process of development; the founder of the Carmelite Convent in Bethlehem, "Little Miriam," about whom exist many documents, showing her a true representative of the peasant culture described in Chapter 4, and, more briefly, the founder of the native Rosary Sisters Order, Mary Alphonsine.
In September 1999, the Greek-Catholic or Melkite community in Palestine came to celebrate in Bethlehem the lustrum of the beatification of the 'little Miriam', the founder of the imposing Carmel Convent there. Bishop Lutfi Laham spoke about her poverty, suffering, traveling and love for the land - a life in which every Palestinian could recognize his or her own plight. After the mass, the community, especially the women, kissed the place where Miriam's skull was on display. Who was she?
Miriam Bawardy, the "Little Miriam," came from a poor family in the Galilee who was struck by the misfortune of having to witness each of their twelve sons dying in infancy. After the twelfth, the parents decided to follow Mary and Joseph's example and to go by foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of 170 kilometers. In 1846 their wish was fulfilled. The newborn girl whom they called Mary stayed alive.
Mary had a difficult youth. At an early age she was destined to marry a cousin but she refused after receiving a vision telling her that she needed to devote her life to Jesus. She lived a roaming life working as a servant; traveling from Alexandria in Egypt, to Jaffa and Beirut, then on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She could neither read nor write. One patron made it possible for her to go to Marseille in France, and subsequently to the Carmel of Pau, where she stayed for some years. Back in the Galilee, she joined the Carmelites in Haifa where she received the name of Mary of Jesus Crucified. A great many different miracles or "charisms" seem to have occurred to her, like the "stigmata," the blood flowing from hands and feet, reminiscent of Jesus. She would later help to found Carmelite convents in India, and, at the end of her life, in Bethlehem. There she died in 1879 at the age of 33. Some hundred years later, on 13 November 1983, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her beatification.
Mary showed a remarkable closeness to the land, which she expressed in the many poems, hymns and sayings she wrote. The land and its creatures come alive in a visual and narrative way. When she was still a child and sitting on the shore of the Mediterranean, a vision of Jesus came to her: "You see this immense sea! Very well, you should use only the amount of its water that you need. Even though the sea cannot be drained, use only as much of it as is necessary. This is to give you an example of the poverty you ought to practice." At another moment she observed a winged ant and a giant in a dream. The ant, symbol of humility, carried without problem the weight of a house, while the giant, symbol of pride, was crushed under the load of a few straws. A voice said to her: "I love this ant, because it is little; that is why I will build a large house over it." After this vision, she came to be called the "Little Nothing," or the "Little Miriam."
Nature rendering glory
Many other visions of nature occurred to her, such as the following: "I saw a field of wheat that bowed before me, as if to greet its Creator, and in this wheat field I saw written in large letters: 'This is my body'. Then there was a vine encircling it and on the vine were these letters: 'This is my blood'. I saw a tree that had its roots planted deep in the damp ground; it bore much fruit and seemed to rejoice in rendering Glory to the Creator by bearing its fruit. I saw the sun, the moon, the stars, everything that is in the sky and on the earth, rendering Glory to God. And each thing was singing a canticle more beautiful than any I have ever heard. It was not as I express it, I know, but it was so beautiful, so beautiful! And I saw what was like a high wall, that fell to dust, and let me see my Creator." Her biographer tells that she "was a visual observer and painter. All of springtime Galilee comes to life again in her metaphors: flowers, birds, fish, perfumes, songs, springs, gardens, flower-beds, trees, grottoes, light and day, darkness and night, earth and sky, seas and rivers... In their humble pastoral life, the fellahs [peasants] and Bedouins of Palestine are the unconscious guardians of the legends, the rhythms and traditions of the Biblical East. Miriam was a daughter of the fields, a little peasant girl. In her, the Palestinian dances and cadences mingled with the austerity of the Carmel of Pau."
Her love for the land was not possessive but contemplative. She writes about her being tempted. "'You tempt me against faith?' asked the 'Little One', 'but I have God with me; I fear nothing. You tell me there is no God? I go to the garden and contemplate Creation; I see the little trees becoming full-grown; this sight increases my faith. You tempt me against the Church? I go to the garden again; I find a fruit and I open it; I look at this open fruit and I see the seed in the fruit. I go into a church, I open the tabernacle and I find the Eucharist. You tempt me against charity? I go down to the garden, I consider the animals, I see the lambs, the chicks, I see them all together, united among themselves.'"
In 1875, on her entrance to Bethlehem, Mary pointed out a flight of pigeons that settled on a desert hill to the west of the town. She indicated the place as where the Lord wanted Carmel. The convent was set up to honor the poverty of infant Jesus in the stable. It was therefore designed as a plain and bare monastery where the nuns would live without comfort. "No moldings, no ornamental trees in the garden, only fruit trees."
She oversaw the building of the Convent. She sometimes worked herself with lime and sand. The workmen adored her, she settled differences and quarrels, and received the tradesmen. Once, while she carried water to the workers, she fell and broke both legs. Some weeks after that incident, she died of gangrene. At her funeral Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem Arabs from all around Bethlehem wept for her. It is said, according to the Greek-Catholic father Elias Chacour who serves in her birthplace Ibilin, that when she died, the bells rang in Bethlehem, Ibilin and many other places.
Miracles also happened to another Palestinian nun, the founder of the Rosary Sisters Order, sister Mary Alphonsene. Born a few years before sister Miriam, in 1843, she joined the St. Joseph Sisters in her adult life. She had a special relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus, who appeared to her several times. Once she prayed to Mary and a voice told her: "Sultani [my master], wake up, somebody is waiting." She found mother Mary sitting in front of her. Sister Mary kneeled and put her head in the Virgin's lap. Mother Mary told her: "I want you to form an order, the Rosary Sisters." She was then 37 years old. First she hesitated, but Mary appeared to her repeatedly asking the same question.
In her plans, the order would take away the evils of society and help the needy. She called the help of a father from Nazareth, Yousef Tannous (Yousef is Arabic for Joseph, Tannous refers to the ancient Canaanite name for the god Adonis). Father Tannous said, "You have a good heart, you are the right one to do it." The father rented a small house in Bethlehem where they started social activities for the poor, teaching young women sewing. Bethlehem's inhabitants gave food and helped them in various ways. Step by step they expanded the services to the community. Sister Mary Alphonsine shared the modesty and humility of Sister Miriam. She did not want to become director of the order (her sister did so), nor did she want to take a special job. She stayed a regular nun and few people knew that she was the order's founder.
When she was forty she observed two girls quarrelling with each other. One of them fell in a well. The girl screamed; there was no rope. People came and went, not knowing what to do. The sister prayed and Mary appeared to her, asking her to throw the rosary at the neck of the girl. There appeared a white light and the girl became very calm. Then she was carried out of the well by an invisible power. The white light kept sister Mary blind for three days. Other miracles happened to her. Some have heard about the following story from 1909. Sister Mary visited the Bethlehemite Jibreel Dabdoub when he was ill of typhus and about to die. The priest gave him the sacrament and his sisters prayed. When he died, the women started screaming, as is the traditional custom. One of Dabdoub's sisters opened his cloth. But Mary Alphonsine prayed and asked, "Can you please wait a moment." She took her rosary, wetted the beads in water, and put some drops in his mouth. The man accepted the drops. A silence fell over the room. The sister continued and added fruits, one by one, which he took. He was alive again. She continued praying and he stayed alive.
Later on, the Rosary Sisters would expand their activities to reach out to Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf States, and Rome. They were officially recognized as an Order of the Roman Catholic Church in 1959. The Rosary Sisters now pride the largest order in the Holy Land, with only Arab nuns serving. They run several schools of a very good reputation. Over the years the charitable work has continued to grow, with an increasing number of workers and administrators being Arab. The work is done outside the spotlights, in humility.
When learning about Bethlehem Christians, one is astonished to hear the great variety of life stories. Although suffering is without exception part of them, the ways in which the community is served can differ much.
As we saw before, the 20th century brought political calamities to the Palestinians. Many Christians were in the vanguard of political movements during the time of the British mandate between the World Wars and after the PLO was founded in the 1960s. An example was former mayor 'Issa Khoury Basil Bandak (1998-1984) who was a leading Palestinian from Bethlehem. Some chose to take part in resistance, with all the risks involved. When searching for some Christian women's stories in the Bethlehem region, we were pointed to the life of Su'ad Mitri Abu Ghattas, nicknamed by the Biblical name "Eli."
After Su'ad finished her matriculation exam in the 1960s and followed a training course in nursing, she stayed three years in Jordan to subsequently come back to Palestine in the year of the June War, 1967. Shocked by the effects of the war, she started to become politically involved, joining the Fatah faction of the PLO. She left the country but came back later in the year for a secret spying mission. Arafat's brother Fathi gave her directions for operating a women's network in Israel. One day the hospital where she worked was closed and surrounded by military. She was taken to prison and condemned to four years of which she served two after buying off the rest of her sentence. She had a rough time in prison. Sometimes she was hit and pressured to reveal the names of her comrades, in the same way as others had been pressured to reveal her own name. However, she was trained not to speak. The girls in prison gave each other advice about, for instance, who among the inmates could be an informer. Of course, her family was worried. They thought that the guards might sexually abuse her. Honor is an extremely serious issue in Palestinian society, and although her father had secretly encouraged her before in her political activities, he now regretted that he had done so.
When she left prison, she caught rheumatism and her eyesight diminished. She could not have children for a long time but at the age of forty she gave birth to a son. Now she is not active in politics anymore and wants to solely take care of her family.
Did she have any specific religious motivation in joining a guerrilla group? She denies so. Her social environment and family were politically nationalist, and for them it was natural to sacrifice one's life for the good of the community or nation. The motivation is couched in terms of serving the people. While miles apart from each other in types of work and outlook, it is this motivation that establishes a link between Su'ad and the nuns about whose life we spoke of earlier. All of them denied the needs of their own life. They were not interested in their own personal development, but devoted themselves completely to the needs of the community as defined by the tragic circumstances in which they lived. It is this link that makes it possible for Bethlehemites, while recognizing the great differences in the life choices of these women, to admire all of them.
The movement that brought a major impetus to the development of an articulate Palestinian-Christian approach was, however, not an armed one. The Intifada at the end of the 1980s, although born out of despair for a political solution to the Palestinian question, sparked a genuine grassroots movement in which Palestinians without religious distinction participated. The movement was essentially non-violent and gained its impact primarily from the broad media attention it attracted. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza spoke with mounting self-confidence, and this reflected upon the Palestinian churches where the lay believers asked for solidarity from the leading clergy.
The various Christian churches in Palestine joined common platforms of dialogue and spoke with one voice about the Palestinians' suffering and oppression. At the same time, Christian Palestinians felt compelled to speak out themselves as Christians. They were confronted with several misrepresentations of their life and role. Some Christian fundamentalists attempted to convert Palestinian Christians to sects which defined Zionism as vital to Biblical fulfillments, an understanding which was opposed to the Palestinians' definition of their reality as one of suffering inflicted by Israeli policies. Also, Palestinian Christians felt hurt by the comparison between their position and that of the Biblical Canaanites and Philistines who opposed ancient Israel, as if their present-day demands were in some sense anti-Biblical. Another image they resisted was the presupposition, sometimes propagated in Israel and abroad, that Christians formed a minority in Palestinian society persecuted by a Moslem majority.
Moreover, long-term problems appeared which had to do with the position of Palestinian Christians in society, and which demanded concerted action on their part. A major problem was the appearance of religious tendencies in the course of the Intifada. Islamicist movements tended to impose conservative standards especially on women's dress and behavior in society. Another major problem was the emigration of the Christian minority discussed before.
Through the participation of clergy and laity in discussion platforms, conferences, and visits abroad, there appeared a movement for a new Palestinian-Christian theology that was alternatively dubbed "Theology of Liberation" or "Contextual Theology." The Christian-Moslem "Al-Liqa" Center in Bethlehem and later on the Jerusalem-based institute "Sabeel" hosted the emergence of this new theology.
Liberation theology was of course a familiar term from other contexts of suffering and resistance, like Latin America, where Catholic priests had developed a theology geared to the situation of oppressed peasants and colonized peoples. Liberation theology demanded action by and in support of the oppressed. Contextual theology was a term designed by Al-Liqa Center to emphasize that the Bible should be read in a historical, social and cultural context. One should be aware of that context to gain a real understanding of the Biblical message.
What were the main elements of this theology as applied to the Palestinian circumstance?
First of all, the context in which Palestinian Christians lived was considered to be the broader Arab culture and its main religion, Islam. In a letter from the Patriarchs of the Catholic Church of the East (the so-called Greek-Catholic or Melkite church), issued at Easter 1992, the cultural context was summarized in this way: "We [Muslims and Christians] draw on a single heritage of civilization. Each of us has contributed to its formation according to his own genius. Our kinship of civilization is our historical patrimony. Christians of the East are an inseparable and integral part of the cultural identity of Muslims. In the same way, Muslims of the East are an inseparable part of the cultural identity of Christians." In emphasizing the bond between Eastern Christianity and Islam, the bishops implicitly opposed any kind of religious fundamentalism. Elsewhere in the letter, the role of Christians in society is compared, not to the segregated dhimmi status as during the Ottoman times, but - in characteristically natural metaphors - as "light" in the house, "salt" in the food, or "leaven" in the dough. "When we are no longer light, salt and leaven, we become an inert, solid entity, a dead weight, for ourselves and our society."
A second emphasis was grassroots empowerment through solidarity and dialogue. This choice reflected the experience of the Intifada. Biblical teachings should be made relevant to people's common circumstances and their concerns, and should help the development of an autonomous popular voice, also within the churches. The theological base for this emphasis was a focus on the life and teachings of Jesus who addressed the poor and oppressed. Following Jesus, Palestinian relations with Israel were to be based upon the principle of a justice for all combined with values of reconciliation and peace, an ethic not of vengeance but love. Non-violent models of resistance found elsewhere in the world provided models.
A special theological point was related to the important issue of the land and the peoples living on it. Contextual theology warned against a static and ahistorical interpretation of the Old Testament, as if Israel or the Jewish people's election in the Old Testament could be the basis for political claims brought forward by (a part of) present-day Israel. Rather, the Old Testament should be read from the reference point of Jesus' teachings and deeds, and set against the background of the prevalent societal conventions of the time. God's teachings could only appear through the cultural limitations of what was understood and practiced at a particular period. For instance, in dealing with justice, the Bible showed a progressive civilizational development from the principle of disproportionate vengeance to proportionate retribution ("an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"), to the principle "treat others as you yourself wants to be treated" and finally to neighborliness and love.
The Bible provided not only stories of conquest but also inspiring narratives of hospitality and neighborliness. Abraham, forefather of the three monotheistic religions, was hosted with bread and wine by the Canaanite (Jebusite) Melchizedek, native of Jerusalem. In his turn Abraham extended hospitality to the two visiting angels who accompanied God Himself. Abraham also dealt with the natives of Hebron in an agreeable way. Following the Old Testament examples, Jesus broke bread and gave wine to the apostles, an act in which He offered his body and his blood to save the world. In their turn, the Apostles baptized and broke bread with non-Jews. Essentially, Palestinian Christians feel culturally comfortable with notions of neighborliness and hospitality, with giving and sharing, rather than with possessive claims.
In his book "I am a Palestinian Christian," Mitri Raheb, reverend at the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, gives some cases of contextual or liberation theology during the stormy times of the Intifada.
No Christmas celebration
"The following sentence was spray-painted on the wall of our Lutheran school two days before Christmas: 'Excuse us, dear Christ, unfortunately we cannot celebrate your birthday this year, for we are an occupied people whose children are denied life!' I [Mitri Raheb] used that sentence in my Christmas sermon. I told the congregation that we really felt we could not celebrate the birthday of a child prodigy descended from heaven. That would indeed be a bit much. Nor did we feel like greeting Santa Claus and opening gifts. 'But we could really do without that for a while; there is no mention of any of it in the Bible. Instead, Holy Scripture relates the story of a refugee child who has nowhere to lay his head. It is a truly human child, one who is not born into a beautiful, rosy, peaceful world but into a cruel world just like ours. The biblical Christmas story tells of the birth of a child who was denied life too and who was forced to fear for his life. A child born at the time of Herod the Great who had ordered the slaying of all the children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. A child who became a refugee very early in his life.'"
Similarly, Mounir Fasheh, until recently director of the Palestinian community development center "Tamer," said that "the fact that Christ was born in a cave, in a manger, is not a call to idolize or glorify the cave or the manger but a reminder to us of the absurd and evil conditions in the world. It is a call to action so that babies will not have to be born in a cold and unhealthy cave. Christ being born in a cave might be exotic to Western tourists, but for us Palestinians, it is a reminder that the inhuman conditions under which Christ was born (including his flee with his parents to avoid being killed by soldiers) do still exist in the world and, in particular, in the very place where Christ was born."
Sermon of the Mount
In a situation of oppression and resistance, Christians are commonly known to cite the Sermon of the Mount, with its praise for the downtrodden. The Palestinian priest Elias Chacour knows Aramaic, the language spoken at Jesus' time. He says that what is translated as "blessed" in the text of the Sermon of the Mount is in the Aramaic text an active verb meaning "to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous." He translates the Sermon in the following way:
"Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied."
"Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God."
Like the child in the cave, the Sermon on the Mount is thus considered to be a call for action. The Intifada showed such forms of action. At one point, the people of Beit Sahour, the town adjacent to Bethlehem, refused to pay taxes. They said: "As long as you occupy us, don't allow us representation, we will not pay taxes." The Israeli army came in the town to confiscate goods from those shops and households who refused to pay. Goods up to an amount of 1.8 million dollar were confiscated from the 10,000 inhabitants of Beit Sahour. Nobody complied with the army's demand to pay even just a small amount in order to break the strike.
Mounir Fasheh relates the following story: "One woman from that town, after the army took everything from her house and got to the kitchen, said to the officer, "Why don't you leave the refrigerator. I have small children and the milk will rot outside." Trying to tempt her, the officer said, "O.K., pay 50 shekels as taxes [about $ 25] and I will return everything." She said, "I am not bargaining with you. I am appealing to you as a human being who probably has children." He said: "One shekel." She said, "Take the refrigerator." Fasheh: "This is Christ in action."
In commenting upon the tax revolt, Mitri Raheb says that it provides an illustration of Matthew 5:40, the passage containing the demand: "And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well."
When one house was completely emptied by the soldiers, the soldiers "turned to bid farewell to the elderly owner, a Christian. The old woman looked at the young soldier sadly. Her glance contained suffering, pain, and rage. Her lips moved, but not to curse, not to cry out not even to scold. 'You forgot the curtains. Please do not forget to take them down too and remove them.' An eerie silence descended on the room. Shamed and guilty, the soldiers left. They took everything except the curtains. At that moment the old woman had achieved dignity. At that moment the triumphant Israeli army had lost the battle. An old woman had defeated them."
One can see from these stories that the Palestinian-Christian register of experiencing the Intifada was action-oriented, liberation-minded, ethically razor-sharp, challenging. At the same time it contained openings of reconciliation, and many Christians were active in dialogues with the Israeli peace movement, such as in the Beit Sahour platform "Rapprochement" which often hosted Israelis and Palestinians together.
The following story from a Bethlehem woman serves to reflect this spirit of reconciliation:
"During one of the Intifada days, a young Palestinian woman was trapped between two groups of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone throwers. Gas grenades were thrown and the woman had to close the windows of her car. She was four months pregnant. She felt about to suffocate but managed to go home. However, her pains increased and at night she was admitted to the hospital. The next day she had an abortion and saw her four-month-old baby boy dead. She was terribly depressed since it was the second abortion she suffered during the last three years.
A week later she visited a medical doctor in Jerusalem for a check up. When coming out of the doctor's clinic, she saw nearby on top of an electric staircase an Israeli child who was recklessly playing and about to fall down. Thoughts rushed through her mind. Should she leave him and let him die the way the Israeli soldiers let her boy die a week ago, or should she make a desperate attempt to grab him? All of a sudden, she felt an impulse that made her hurry forwards. Throwing herself in front of the boy she prevented his fall."
Christian action nowadays
Times are changing. The Intifada has ceased, although up until this day there are regular skirmishes between Palestinian boys and men and Israeli soldiers, and even sometimes large-scale outbursts at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. Yet the peace process and the arrival of the Palestinian Authority has changed life and the nature of the relations between Palestinians and Israelis as well as between Palestinians themselves. What does it mean nowadays, a Christian way of life in Bethlehem and the Holy Land?
It would be pretentious to suggest definite answers. The contexts are different. The emigration of Palestinian Christians from the Bethlehem area has continued due to the uncertain circumstances and the existing family networks in the Americas, Australia and other places. There are fears that the presence of the community itself is at stake.
At the same time, due to increasing globalization, the influence of Western mass media, individualization and consumerism, some young Christians do not feel a strong relationship with either the Christian community in Bethlehem or with Palestine in general. There hides a certain alienation behind the phenomenon of Christian emigration. For a considerable number of young people, the stories of Palestinian and Arab life are less relevant than they were for their parents and grandparents. Other members of the Christian community are concerned about this and are trying to formulate an answer in which a Christian contribution to Palestinian national life is less defined by the numbers of Christians present in the country and more by the constructive roles Christians fulfill in society. These roles are redefined to meet modern demands yet remain rooted in the traditional cultural identity of Christian Palestinians. The following areas seem especially salient. They all have to do with community building.
Education. Due to the presence of quality Christian schools, Christians still have a great stake in the formation of future Palestinian leaders and cadres. Gradually, a number of themes come forward that may give new impulses to Palestinian education. Students learn more about the environment and the diversity of cultures in their country, allowing them to take pride in the life of their ancestors. Also, education helps Palestinians to meet other Palestinians. Presently a dozen of schools in the Bethlehem-Hebron area cooperate to revive the shared Moslem-Christian culture of Palestine, an experience of social and geographical border crossing. Democracy programs are found at several educational institutions. Israeli-Palestinian peace encounters are promoted. Such initiatives in the long run add to a climate of openness and tolerance, even though without a fundamental change in the political and economic conditions of living, educational efforts will meet their limitations.
Tourism. Christians have been traditionally involved in the development of local tourism and they will undoubtedly play a central role in developing the tourist sector in the Palestinian Autonomy. In doing so, they are in a good position of communicating the Palestinian culture towards visitors. In view of the existence of various stereotypes of Palestinians, tourism may be the major channel through which Palestinian Christians can help to restore a fruitful, open exchange with the outside world. Presently various travel agents operate "alternative", "cultural" or "authentic" programs for tourist visits, including pilgrimages. The visitors do not just attend the traditional sites, but also visit the "living stones," the native Palestinians, or witness traditional Palestinian cultural places. To take one example, during the millennium year, a travel agency organizes walking journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, not just to get a better feel of what such journeys meant in the old times, but also to have an opportunity to visit Palestinian villages, to stay the night there and to talk with locals about their conditions of life.
Social and charity work. Finally, there is the social work of the many institutions in Bethlehem who witness Jesus' life by working in health and other sectors. With a staff that is increasingly Arabized, they provide hope for Christians and Moslems alike, in an open atmosphere. Values of democracy and human rights are increasingly propagated. We mention here some of the major institutions, and add some Islamic and secular ones:
- The Antonian Society: Home for the female elderly
- The Arab Society for Rehabilitation of the Physically Handicapped (Beit Jala, originally Bethlehem)
- Ihsan Charitable Society (Beit Jala)
- The Arab Women's Society (Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour)
- The National Orthodox Charitable Society (Bethlehem)
- The Orthodox Arab Club (Beit Sahour)
- The Islamic Charitable Society (Bethlehem)
- The Islamic Club (Bethlehem)
- Scouts and Girls' Guides Movements
- Popular Committees: Health, Agricultural and Women's activities
The social and charity institutions contribute to what can be called a "theology of service" - a theology that Bethlehemites consider an essential complement to the theology of liberation prompted by the political events of Palestinian nationalism, and to the theology of meditation and reflection developed in the monasteries of Bethlehem from ancient times on.