From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Christmas steals into Bethlehem

Date 8 Jan 2003 08:11:45 -0500

Note #7552 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Christmas steals into Bethlehem
January 6, 2003

Christmas steals into Bethlehem

Though the nations rage, all is calm in the hearts of children

by Alexa Smith

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - Call it the Christmas pageant that almost wasn't.

But was.

A kindergarten-age Virgin Mary, hands on hips, demanded of a like-sized angel
standing above her on a chair: "How could I be having a baby without a
husband?" while a teacher in the wings whispered prompts to them both.

Some of the 40 singers in the choir could barely keep their feet still when
they launched into an Arabic-language medley of familiar Christmas tunes.

A strikingly tiny Santa Claus stood front and center, singing his heart out.

Then there were the eight flutists who played a fragment of Beethoven's Ninth
Symphony and accompanied the choir in its rendition of "The Little Drummer
Boy" while their teacher of one year, George Diek, played his own flute
unobtrusively in the background.

It worked - sort of. Well enough to make it feel a little bit like Christmas
in this Palestinian town next to Bethlehem but far from Bethlehem.

"I don't think anybody was really in the mood  but we try to insist that the
children go on, even though we know it is difficult," said Charlie Haddad,
the superintendent of Lutheran schools on the West Bank, who was in the
audience at the Dar al-Kalima School, a K-10 institution on a hilltop between
Beit Jala and a refugee camp.

"In a way, there was some spirit there; but it was hardly the spirit you
would find under normal circumstances," Haddad told a visitor.

These aren't normal circumstances.

Since September 2000, there has been no normal school calendar on the West
Bank, because of repeated Israeli incursions into Beit Jala and many towns
like it. The Office of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
Jordan and Palestine said on Dec. 5 that its West Bank schools had been
forced to cancel classes regularly. One school had missed 78 days; none had
missed fewer than 48.

Since Nov. 22, when Israeli troops seized Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit
Sahour for the sixth time in two years, putting their 150,000 residents under
virtual house arrest, the children of the Dar al-Kalima School have missed
have missed 14 days, and still counting.

Whenever the curfew was lifted briefly - for a few hours every few days -
Haddad was there to open the school's doors to teachers and students who
would pile in for a few hours of instruction.  

Then they children would go home, with stacks of homework assignments, to
wait for the next seemingly random announcement that people were free for a
while to go outside.

That kind of waiting was just what Haddad was doing on Dec. 26. He wondered
whether he would be able to leave his house the following morning or need to
cancel two important meetings, not for the first time.

The day after Christmas, Israeli soldiers fanned out across the West Bank,
raiding numerous towns, killing seven Palestinians and arresting 13 in its
campaign to round of members of terrorist groups. The army said most of the
dead were fugitives, but conceded that at least two were bystanders. Four
soldiers were injured, one seriously, in a clash in Kabatiya. 

Two of the arrests were made during nighttime raids on houses in Bethlehem.
The military refused to identify the suspects. Troops fired tear gas into a
crowd of shoppers near the center of Bethlehem, telling them by loudspeaker
to disperse and return to their homes. In response, young stone-throwers
lined up at the edges of the town's cobblestone streets.

Such is life now. Haddad, the members of his faculty and the students and
their families were all waiting for morning, wondering whether there would be
school or not.

Diek said his flutists had had about three weeks of practice before the Nov.
22 reoccupation. For the past month or so, they had been trilling out
Christmas solos at home. "One hour before the show, we practiced," he said in
praise of his young protigis, who had hit most of the correct notes. "They
are clever, I think."

Diek said he had not been able to gather more than 10 choir members at any
time in the past month. With class time at such a premium, academic subjects
had been emphasized, and music had suffered.

But when the time came, they played. And sang.

"I've explained to them that music is not something to use only when we are
happy, when we feel like dancing," Diek said. "It should be  (a means of
self-expression) for all the time. It is one of the few things that remain to
help us in this situation  and they agree."

He said the school teaches that non-violence is the best response to the
violent political climate in which the students live.

"It is a challenge," he said. "When we continue playing in this situation, it
means we want to continue our life. It means they didn't manage to make us
violent. And we are still here. You can hear our music. The students
understand that."

The littler ones, those in Dar al-Kalima's kindergarten classes, some as
young as 3 years old, may not understand the philosophical basis of it all,
but they understood about Santa Claus, and they certainly picked up the
excitement of their teacher when he began shouting, "Father Noel! Father
Noel! He is here!"

The result was the usual pandemonium. A gaggle of preschoolers, jumping and
clapping, plunging their hands and heads into the bags of goodies they
collected from a strikingly skinny Santa who called each one by name.

Haddad said that the adults of Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, aware of
all the suffering in their midst, weren't quite sure how to observe the
holiday this year. Many were inclined to skip it altogether. Many Christians
were ambivalent about the lifting of the curfew, happy for a holiday respite
of freedom, but acutely conscious that their Muslim neighbors didn't have
that luxury for Ramadan.

"Under the circumstances, everyone did well," Haddad said. "Under the
circumstances, no one is complaining.  But that was part of the idea, to
make the children forget.

"And others as well."

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