Traditionally many of the visitors are Christian pilgrims who feel the need to visit the city which is at the core of their religion. The 5-10% that still come to the area must enter through the huge concrete gates which indicate the border of the Bethlehem Ghetto. How can it be therefore that many of the pilgrims who come here have either little of no knowledge at all about the situation in this city?
Now, Im not a Christian man - yet this is not to say that I am atheist. I understand the need of these people to undertake holy pilgrimages and feel closer to their idea of God. Also, Bethlehem as a city badly needs visitors to support its choking economy. So on both of these counts, the tourists are very welcome. What I don't understand about these pilgrims is that my concept of a pilgrimage would include meeting, understanding and empathising with the local population of the place I choose as my pilgrimage site. Surely if you believe you are visiting Gods city then you would feel a desire to mix with Gods people?!
I encountered one of these groups this morning outside my office. They were just one of many groups which I have met that all have one thing in common. They had no idea about Bethlehem Christianity or the suffering of the people here. One group had even requested an armed guard to keep the local 'problems' away from them during their visit. I have lived here in this 'problem' city for over six months and the only time I feel intimidated is when I have to cross an Israeli military Check point.
One of the most common misconceptions about Palestine is that it is a Muslim country. The majority of the population are Muslim but they live side by side with the Christians here. If only the visiting Christians from the West could see how badly Israel desires to conceal this population and why. I personally do not know which of the two religions many of my friends and acquaintances here are - it makes little difference. But propaganda in the West has created the image of the 'scary Muslim Palestinian terrorist' and the 60'000 Christians obstruct this myth. Some analysts even explain the ghettoisation of the city as a deliberate attempt to eliminate this 'obstruction' by encouraging the mass exodus of the Christians.
Why am I writing this? For two reasons really. Firstly I want to say to all Christians out there, you are very welcome to come to Bethlehem and I assure you that you will be safe. Secondly, to all those who do wish to come, for Spiritual or other reasons, embark on your journey with your eyes open. Talk to the people, absorb the atmosphere, see the suffering that the Israeli state policies cause on an almost daily basis.