At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.
That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.
All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."
Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.
Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.