In Bethlehem a visitor is lonely
April 1, 2007
BY ELLEN CREAGER
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- If you're looking for some time alone with Jesus, you're in luck.
The Church of the Nativity isn't busy. You can have all the time in the world to visit Jesus' birthplace and kneel at the big silver star in the marble floor.
Where is everyone? Scared away.
War, bombings, fences, walls and politics have all seen to that.
So, perversely, my advice is, go to Bethlehem now.
The little town needs you.
For tourists, "I would like to draw their attention that this is a very safe and welcoming place," says Shibly Kando, owner of the Kando Store in Bethlehem and the grandson of the man who helped discover the Dead Sea Scrolls. "We welcome everyone with a heart of love."
Outside Israel
A recent poll done by the group Open Bethlehem found that most Americans don't even realize that Bethlehem is in the West Bank, not Israel. That little detail means that even though Bethlehem is next door to Jerusalem, you have to go through a big Israeli military checkpoint to get there -- and pass through an intimidating 30-foot high security wall Israel built in 2005 to keep out suicide bombers.
Pilgrims on bus tours can get through with minimal delays if they provide passport documentation ahead of time. Lone tourists must get in line, just like Palestinians crossing to work and back.
Tourism in Bethlehem has plunged from a high of 90,000 a month in 2000 to about 1,500 a month now.
But to skip this ancient city when you've come all the way to the Holy Land means "your visit is missed," Kando said. "From here, the world started."
Church of the Nativity
We take Kando's small car, driving down gritty streets to the circa 500 A.D. Church of the Nativity. There, we descend into an ancient grotto hung with red velvet curtains. Nigerian Christian pilgrims -- four of them -- kneel and pray at the star in the floor, the place believers say Jesus was born. Unbelievably, nobody else comes. They are alone at the most famous place in Christianity.
Later, at Kando's store stocked with olive wood sculptures, creches, antique pottery and jewelry, he shows me a photograph of his grandfather, Khalil Iskander Shahin, the man who recognized the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls brought to him in 1947 by a shepherd. The scrolls made the Kando family famous.
But pride will only take you so far. Kando has sunk everything into this store. Bethlehem has never been perfect -- "from the first day of creation until now, this country has never faced a real peace," he says. "But we have hoped. As my grandfather always said, you should always live in hope."
Shibly Kando is a Christian. The city was once 85% Christian. Last year, Christians made up 12%. Kando believes it is now more like 3% as more residents leave.
Unemployment is rampant. The wall put up to stop suicide bombings in Israel has worked. But the price for the regular people in Bethlehem has been enormous.
"The Christian nations have forgotten the Christians living in the Holy Land," Kando says sadly.
The one way the average tourist can change things? Do not be afraid. Visit Bethlehem.
Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or ecreager@freepress.com.


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