Bethlehem's Second Coming By Daniel Johnson

Bethlehem's Second Coming

December 28, 2006

What's in a name? In the case of Bethlehem, a great deal. Few names on earth can compare in resonance to the birthplace of both King David and Jesus Christ. And the resonance of a place name can be a powerful weapon in the wrong hands.

Just before Christmas, the heads of the Anglican and Catholic churches in England — respectively, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor — led a delegation of all the main Christian denominations in Britain on a visit to Bethlehem. Their mission was supposedly to draw attention to the plight of Christians there. Instead, they allowed themselves to become tools of Islamist propaganda. Here is how it happened.

For the vast majority of Christians, Bethlehem means angels, shepherds, and a mother with her baby in a manger. For Jews, however, the little town of Christmas carols has acquired a more sinister significance. According to the government of Israel, about half of all the terrorist attacks on Israel come from or through Bethlehem.

Only four years ago was the terrorist presence in Bethlehem brought home to the world. In 2002 the Church of the Nativity was occupied and desecrated by Palestinian terrorists belonging to both Fatah and Hamas. Priests and nuns were held hostage. Some of the terrorists were wanted for their part in the terrible attack on a hotel in Netanya, which killed 30 and wounded 140 Israelis.

Under the circumstances, the Israelis might well have felt justified in storming the basilica. Rather than risk the lives of the hostages or damage to one of the holiest of all Christian shrines, however, the Israel Defense Force waited patiently for 39 days. The siege ended with a deal that allowed the terrorists to be given asylum in several European countries. Now Prime Minister Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, have paved the way for the repatriation of these thugs to Bethlehem. Their imminent return is awaited with fear and trepidation by the Christians, who anticipate a new reign of terror. Only last year, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades stormed the town hall on Christmas Day.

For the Christians who live there, moreover, Bethlehem has come to symbolize Islamic persecution. The Christian population of Bethlehem, whose economy still depends on pilgrims and tourists, has dwindled to 12% today from 85% in 1948. Christians complain of murders, rapes, land grabs, and constant harassment in the atmosphere of hysteria and jihad that has been deliberately cultivated since the town became a Hamas stronghold. The ruling party of the Palestinians wants a final solution of the Middle East conflict: an Islamofascist greater Palestine, with no Jews or Christians at all.

Enter the archbishop and the cardinal. Neither prelate wasted a single word on the Muslims who have transformed Bethlehem from a symbol of peace into a byword for terror. Instead, they condemned two much safer targets: Israel's security fence, which they claimed was "strangling" the economic life of the town, and the invasion of Iraq, which was allegedly responsible for the persecution of Christians all over the Muslim world.

On the security fence, Archbishop Williams said that "it is undoubtedly a fact that suicide bombing attacks have gone down since the barrier was erected." But he went on to condemn "the human cost that we have seen" which "has to raise the question: what alternative is there now?" The answer to that question lies with the Palestinians, whose continued violence reinforces the conviction of the vast majority of Israelis that there is no alternative. The fence has improved security throughout the region, and pilgrims have benefited as much as anybody else. But the terrorists know that the Israelis will be blamed if pilgrims can't get into Bethlehem.

The Israelis are aware of this, of course, and so have provided free shuttle bus service for pilgrims from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Not a word about this from the archbishop or the cardinal. Instead, one Catholic church at St. Ives, in the English county of Cornwall, has erected a 30-foot-by-6-foot mock-up of Israel's security fence in place of the traditional Christmas crib. The parish priest, Father Paul Maddison, said that this will "highlight the plight of the Palestinian people."

Even more absurd is Archbishop Williams' other contention, that the American and British governments are to blame for the fact that ancient Christian communities are disappearing from many parts of what we now call the Muslim world, but which were once centers of Christendom.

In an article for the London Times, the archbishop accused Tony Blair and George Bush of being "short-sighted" and "ignorant" by failing to have a "strategy" to protect the Christians against Muslims who regard them as part of the "crusading West." "The results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region," he wrote.

In fact, it is the archbishop who is ignorant. As a professor of the University of Bradford, Shaun Gregory, responded in a letter to the Times: "The genocide, displacement and repression of Christians across the Muslim world is one of the great untold stories of the past 150 years. Were it more widely known it would explode the myth of Islamic tolerance of other faiths."

We know what happened when the pope referred, even obliquely, to that untold story. The idea that even America has the power to protect Christian minorities from their Muslim neighbors when it is all we can do to keep the global jihad under control only shows that the archbishop is naïve as well as ignorant.

Fortunately, his colleague, the Anglican bishop of Rochester in Britain, Michael Nazir-Ali, is made of sterner stuff. Born in Pakistan, he is the only bishop in the Church of England who has first-hand experience of life in an Islamic state. Last Sunday he issued a timely warning against allowing Muslim women to wear the veil in public. He was responding to reports that a Muslim man wanted for the murder of a policewoman escaped from Britain disguised in a burka because airline staff at Heathrow were too squeamish to ask "her" to undress. As a convert from Islam, the bishop knows that he has nothing to lose by taking a tough line: If the jihad triumphs, he and his fellow "apostates" would be the first for the chop — literally so.

It is sad that Bethlehem has been reduced to a photo opportunity. In bygone centuries, Bedlam — the colloquial abbreviation of "Bethlehem" — was synonymous with the most famous lunatic asylum in the world. The idle rich would pay to gawp at the poor wretches. Are asinine archbishops and canting cardinals who add their quavering voices to the chorus of hatred for "Jews and Crusaders" any better?

The use and abuse of Bethlehem as a propaganda tool by the useful idiots of the jihad put me in mind of William Butler Yeats' great poem "The Second Coming," which ends with a terrible unanswered question: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"