Away from the manger -- a Christian-Muslim divide
KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Tourists and pilgrims who visited Bethlehem over the past decade or so must have run into Farid Azizeh, a Christian businessman who, together with his wife, ran a small coffee shop on Manger Square.
The couple was famous for the fresh orange juice and Turkish coffee they used to serve to their customers. On the eve of the Millennium, many foreign journalists who converged on Bethlehem turned the place into a makeshift media center.
About three years ago, unidentified gunmen opened fire at Azizeh's car on one of the main streets of the city, hitting him in the head. Shortly after the attack, and with the help of Israeli friends, he was transferred to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, where doctors managed to save his life. However, several surgeries failed to save his eyesight.
Regardless of the motive, the case of Azizeh, 72, is seen by many Christians in the context of a campaign allegedly waged by Muslims against the Christian minority in the city. Azizeh, they argue, would not have been targeted had he belonged to one of the large and influential Muslim clans in Bethlehem.
"The Christians here are perceived as easy prey," complains a prominent Christian businessman. "In recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of attacks on Christians in Bethlehem."
Muslim and Christian political leaders in the city strongly deny the existence of an organized anti-Christian campaign, insisting that the violence is mostly the result of "personally motivated" disputes that are unrelated to religion. The victims of crime include both Muslims and Christians, they add, accusing Israel and Jewish organizations of spreading lies about "Muslim persecution" of Christians.
"Reports of Muslim attacks on Christians are wildly exaggerated and you should be careful not to play into the hands of the Israeli propaganda machine," advises Omar al-Khatib, the imam of a mosque in Bethlehem. "Relations between Muslims and Christians have never been better."
Yet off the record, many Christians in Bethlehem who were interviewed during the past week expressed deep concern over increased attacks by Muslims on members of their community. Moreover, most of them said that they were seriously considering moving to the US, Canada and Latin America, where many of their relatives already live.
Jihad, a Christian merchant from the nearby town of Beit Jala, who has been dealing in antique furniture for over 30 years, says he is planning to leave for good to Chile, where at least 80,000 of his townsfolk now live. "There are less than 10,000 Christians living in Beit Jala today," he explains. "There's no future here because of the deteriorating economic conditions" (http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1129540575411&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull)