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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
160 pages
Jun 2004
Augsburg Fortress Publishers

Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble

by Mitri Raheb

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Bethlehem Besieged by Mitri Raheb tells the story of a much forgotten and ignored group, Palestinian Christians, during the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity and the Intifada. Raheb, the pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem near the Church of the Nativity, shares the terror of the shelling and bombing by the Israelis, the heartbreak of a member of his church whose mother and brother died during the attack, and the hopelessness of parents for the children. He also describes the steps his church is taking to build a new, hopeful Palestine.

Raheb's book is important for many of us to read to show us the heartache of Palestinian Christians. He creates an empathy with these persecuted believers. The Palestinians suffer great poverty and hopelessness. Many have lost their homes and jobs. They resent the wall that Israel is building. The medical situation appalls. Israel plays power politics and pulls mind games which make the Palestinians suffer indignities. Shari'ah law enforcement endangers some Palestinian Christians, though Raheb does not mention its being a problem in Bethlehem. Members of his congregation have been imprisoned without charge or cause. You can feel the shaking of Raheb's house as the tanks on either side fire at the Arab gunmen, the trembling of his children as he holds them during the shelling, and the indignation at the way he is treated by some of the Israeli soldiers.

The last section of the book describes the valiant efforts of the Christmas Lutheran Church to bring hope to Bethlehem. Christians and Muslims stage a candlelight vigil in opposition to the Arab gunmen who make their neighborhoods targets and to the Israelis who fire upon them. They start a medical center to alleviate the appalling health conditions. They start a cultural and arts center so that some of their people can find employment and so that children can receive special training. Many in his staff returned to Bethlehem in order to serve there in spite of having the opportunity to live in safer places. I have to admire their courage, their hope, and their dedication to providing a future for the people.

However, Raheb will anger many readers. He shows more empathy for the Muslim gunmen who fled to the Church of the Nativity and took hostages than for the Israeli victims of the bombing that precipitated the attacks. He attributes the suffering to Palestinian sins, Israel's sins of searching for security, Europe's sins of the Holocaust, Arab governments' sins of funding the attacks on the Jews to distract their people from internal problems, American Jews' sins of guilt, and the sins of the Christian right in the United States. "I do not find much in them that is Christian or right. They are anxious for Armageddon, no more and no less. They do not even care for Israel itself, but for the final 'big bang.' Deep down they are anti-Semitic, hating Israel and the Jewish people."

At first the statement about the Christian right offended me because I thought he grossly misunderstood our position. Then I wondered if the misunderstanding is not our fault in part. Much of the Christian Right's support of Israel is based on eschatology. Much is also based on teachings of Israel being the chosen people, of Paul's teachings on the grafting in of Israel, and a concern for the David in the David vs. Goliath fight. After all, Israel is surrounded by larger nations sworn to drive it into the sea. If we have offended our brethren in Palestine and perhaps in Israel too by eschatological teachings, maybe we need to reconsider how we come across. Have preachers in pushing particular eschatological views forgotten that it is people who will be hurt, families with children, elderly people, people who bruise and bleed, who long and yearn just as we do?

One group conspicuous in its absence in Raheb's list of sins is Muslims. He never names Islam as a problem, never rebukes the gunmen taking over the Church of the Nativity, never criticizes Islam's apocalyptic vision that Israel must be destroyed before Islam can rule the world, and rarely suggests that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict has a religious element. When he does suggest a religious element, it's that the Jews have no respect for Christians. It's never even clear how many of the homicide bombers are Muslim, how many Palestinian Christian. Also Arab gunmen frequently shoot at the Israelis from the Palestinian Christian suburbs. Then the Israelis retaliate, forcing Arab Christians to flee from their lives. He never explains whether these attacks are made by Christian Palestinians or Muslim Palestinians or foreign terrorists. I have always assumed that the homicide bombings are done by Muslims and that the gunmen firing on Israelis are Muslim. Raheb does not clarify, so I still do not know.

The closest he comes to criticizing Islam is mild criticism of "our leaders" and a reference or two to "fundamentalists." Whether this is because it is safer to criticize Israel and others than the Muslims he lives among, I'm not sure. At times the book almost reflects the hostage syndrome in which the hostage (Palestinian Christians) begins to take on the viewpoint of the hostage takers (Palestinian Muslims) and own their enemies (Israel) as his own, though that may be an overstatement on my part.

For instance, he criticizes Ariel Sharon's "provocative" visit to Haram As-Sharif and Al-Aqsa Mosque because it is the Muslim's third holiest sites. True, but it is also the Temple Mount, Israel's holiest site, which Raheb conveniently does not mention. Why should a Jew be refused the right to visit his holiest site? Did the Jews riot and commit homicide bombings when Yasser Arafat visited the Temple Mount? Perhaps I just don't recall it. Too often certain Muslims expect a respect and tolerance that they are unwilling to give others which seems to be one of the underlying problems in the Middle East.

Repeatedly "the Intifada started" like the spring monsoons or an earthquake without reference to the Muslims who started it. But the Israelis are guilty of retaliating.

Raheb calls on the United Nations to enforce compliance with its rulings on Israel but does not make mention of Palestinian failures to comply with their agreements.

Though I offer some negative criticism of the book, I truly believe we in the West need to read it. Some of us are in a position to encourage more justice and respect from Israel for innocent Palestinians. Others may be able to provide economic aid or medical help. Some of us may be able to write to Israeli government officials requesting the release of innocent Palestinians, especially Palestinian Christians. All of us can pray for the safety and encouragement of the Palestinian Christians and that both Israeli and Palestinian Christians could have wisdom and influence in bringing hope, peace, and comfort to this troubled area. -- Debbie W. Wilson, Christian Book

Book Jacket:

The pastor of Christmas Church, a Palestinian Lutheran congregation, Mitri Raheb here presents a powerful collection of compelling personal stories of desperation and hope in the midst of lethal conflict, bringing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict up close and personal. Raheb's lifelong commitment to his people has kept him in the legendary birthplace of Christianity, even as Bethlehem has become a flashpoint in the world's most volatile and hate-filled conflict. His passionate personal testimony lifts up the stray gesture toward friendship, the brave attempts to rebuild life and livelihood in a destroyed land, and the unquenchable desire for justice and peace.