JERUSALEM — Bethlehem was a late addition to President Barack Obama’s schedule in Israel and the West Bank, and it focuses attention on another of the region’s appellations: the Holy Land.
The Church of the Nativity on Manger Square may be close to the Christian president’s heart, even while he has taken great care to talk of the common bonds that unite the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The American leader will be warmly welcomed officially, but on the streets the story is different. Bethlehem has been seething ever since it was announced that Obama would visit. Palestinian political activists were furious when the municipality removed a statue in Manger Square that showed Palestine without Israel and fought contractors to keep it in place.
Obama posters have been defaced, American flags burned and activists set up a protest tent on the edge of town to show how Israel can build homes there but Palestinians can’t.
What Obama will not be able to avoid on the 10-minute drive from Jerusalem is the wall, more than 20 feet high, that cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. As he is driven through the gate into Bethlehem — a gigantic roadblock cut into the concrete security barrier —and past the walls he will read the graffiti cursing Israel and calling for a Palestinian state.
Religion and politics here are sometimes indistinguishable.
Although Bethlehem is probably the most famous Christian place-name, celebrated in hymn and prayer, today it is no longer a Christian town. In 1950, 80 percent of the population was Christian. Today, 80 percent is Muslim. There are far more mosques than churches.
The image that best describes this is just on the other side of Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity, venerated by Christians as the site where Jesus was born. The main mosque, the Mosque of Omar, stands there, the muezzin’s call to prayer echoes across the rooftops, competing with the peel of the bells from the church across the square.
So many of the faithful answer its call that at the week’s main prayers, Friday midday, they don’t all fit in the mosque and flow out into Manger Square, covering part of it.
The cause is partly a higher birth rate among Muslims than Christians, according to figures from the Palestinian and Israeli statistics bureaus. Figures from the agencies show that Muslim women in the West Bank were likely to have 3.8 children during their lifetimes, compared with 2.1 for Israeli Christians. Also it is partly because Christians seek a better life far away from the turbulent struggle between Jews and Arabs for control of their land. Although many Christians say this is their struggle too, the proportion of people emigrating is much higher among Christians than Muslims or Jews. Only about 2 percent of the region's population today is Christian.
Obama’s visit though will not focus attention solely on the birthplace of Jesus but on the plight of Christians across the whole Middle East.
A report last year by the British think tank Civitas said that Christianity was at risk of being wiped out in the biblical heartland because of "Islamic oppression" and estimated that up to two-thirds of Christians had emigrated or been killed in the past century. They continue to be particularly persecuted in predominantly Muslim countries, not only in the Middle East but worldwide, according to the study.
Obama is on a mission to help bring peace to the Holy Land and may indeed find a moment of personal peace and prayer in the Grotto of the Nativity beneath the stone floor of the church. If he has any time to reflect at all, it must be that peace here is still a distant dream worth pursuing.
Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List,""Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."