Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

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. Today these families are struggling because tourists are staying away from Bethlehem, thinking it unsafe.

There have, of course, been protests against President Donald Trump’s decision to act on earlier U.S. statements recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Many evangelicals, primarily those who were part of Trump's early base, cheered the decision. But leaders of the region's ancient, and endangered, Christian communions were both sad and mad. This was an act of political symbolism, but Arab Christians saw it as yet another attack on their ties to sites in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

But back to the story. Giacaman, a Catholic, returned to Bethlehem when his aging father said he could no longer run the family business. Would they lose it, after losing so many other things in the past? Read carefully:

“I just couldn’t let that happen,” Giacaman said. “First, because of the church. There are so few Christians left here and I felt it was important to strengthen the community. But also because my grandfather created this factory and he and my father worked so hard to keep it going.”
The number of Christians in the Holy Land has declined dramatically due to emigration. Today, Christians comprise less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population.

That's all there is to it? This is simply an emigration issue? Suffice it to say, I don't know many Christians from Syria, the West Bank and elsewhere who would use those words (based on my experiences worshiping with Christians with ties to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and elsewhere).

Well, why are so many Christians fleeing their ancient homes?

Maybe the story needed a short summary of tensions with Israel? And what about the waves of persecution seen in the surrounding Middle East in the past decade? No mention of ISIS and failed American policies in the region?

The bottom line: Christians in that region, and down into Egypt, have plenty of reasons to worry about their futures. Is this an emigration issue? Well, yes, that's part of the equation. Death, destruction and persecution are part of the picture, too.

Toward the end of the piece, there is another reference to the Trump declaration (and more). Tony Hosh is part of another family in the olive-wood crafts industry.

Hosh said the uncertain political and security situation in the West Bank makes tourism unpredictable, and that affects the livelihood of local artisans.
That’s been especially true since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, Hosh said, because of the clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. Although some have taken place on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the town center, which is filled with Christmas lights and a soaring tree, is peaceful and quiet.
Actually, it’s too quiet, given that Christmas is fast approaching.
“When there are problems at checkpoints, when there are travel advisories, tourists are afraid to enter Bethlehem. The souvenir shops can’t function,” Hosh said.

That's true. However, the sad reality is that this Bethlehem story isn't really new. The trends in the communities around these sites are, tragically, rather old news.

This 2017 story does a fine job of focusing on these families and their sacred and popular art. But there is more to this tragedy than a Trump announcement and some vague emigration trends. The big picture involves persecution, destruction, death and hard decisions about the ties that bind.

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