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Home > Articles > Christmas Bells in a Muslim Village

Christmas Bells in a Muslim Village
Philip L. Roberts
9/14/2011

It was dusk on December 23. The air was warm and thick with dust and smoke. Well spaced and majestic date palm trees whirled by me as my guide Yair drove me to an appointment with the newly established Palestinian Ministry of Tourism to work out all of details for our Christmas Eve performance in Manger Square the next evening. You see, Bethlehem belongs to a parcel of bitterly contested land called the West Bank. And, the previous day, Israel surprised the world—especially me—and ceded control of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. All of the planning and work and organizing that I had done with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for the previous two years suddenly evaporated.


It was 1995, and I directed the handbells choirs of the First United Methodist Church of LaGrange, Illinois and we had been invited to participate in Hanukkah and Christmas festivities in Israel. We had spent months of fundraising all around the western suburbs of Chicago and spent much time in detailed planning with the Israeli consulate in Chicago and with the Israeli Bureau of Tourism to have the privilege of ringing in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.


Now the rules had drastically changed and I needed to work out details with the new Palestinian officials in one brief meeting that took almost 2 years to negotiate with the Israeli officials. My destination, Manger Square, was less than 8 miles from my hotel in Jerusalem but due to the influx of Christians from around the world and the fact that the West Bank was celebrating it’s independence, the road was very crowded and became more congested as Yair and I approached the town limits. We were stopped at gun point at a Palestinian checkpoint next to the Tomb of Rachel, which is located on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Arafat had just given a speech at Manger Square and there were way too many people and cars inside the village. The soldiers were not letting anyone pass. In addition, there were about 20 Orthodox Jews tauntingly protesting and singing Hanukkah songs directly in front of the young, jittery, heavily armed Palestinian soldiers manning the roadblock.


So, my guide Yair, a Jew who served as an Israeli Army captain in the 7 Day War, started arguing with this young Palestinian corporal, who, of course, is Muslim, over whether or not to let this Christian (that’s me) pass through the blockade into Bethlehem. Here’s a quote from my journal that I kept during that trip.


“I’m standing amid a mayhem that might evolve into something more serious at the outskirts of the town where the Prince of Peace was born. I didn’t feel that peace was of importance to the Jewish demonstrators—They were trying to provoke the young, ill at ease, soldiers. Nor was peace a top priority for the soldiers who told us at gunpoint to get out of the car. And, the way Yair and the young corporal were in each other’s face, I certainly didn’t feel that peace was on their minds. I began to feel even more unsteady when Yair came back to where I was standing near the car and said, “Well, OK, it’s time to write your memoir, Phil.’”


We had to walk the rest of the way but eventually, I did make it to my meeting and finalized the arrangements for our performance. But the 3-mile trek from that checkpoint at Rachel’s Tomb to Manger Square was unsafe and high-risk. Following the meeting, a very kind shopkeeper drove us out of town back to our car. I made sure my ringers spent time in his shop the next day. Which brings me to an interesting paradox.


Bethlehem was and is a Muslim village. The mayor gave me a gift, a manger scene, made from olive wood. That’s a unique gift coming from a Muslim, but one that I cherish.


It’s now the next evening, Christmas Eve. I’m in Manger Square directing the handbell choir near the place where Jesus was born and the place is swarming with all kinds of people who are there to celebrate their independence, not to celebrate the birth of Christ. There was chaos and Manger Square was overcrowded. Relations were frayed and fragile. The tension was unmistakably apparent; much like the scene in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, I suppose.


Yet, after months of planning and fundraising and after a harrowing experience the day before and after negotiating with complete strangers- through two egotistical interpreters- with how our concert would take place, we were finally ringing up on this hastily built stage and all of Manger Square was packed with a sea of flesh. It was an awesome experience to be directing handbells so far from home in front of so many people that had never seen a handbell before. One of my ringers tried to get my attention. She wanted me to turn around as I was directing. Reluctantly, I did and I saw not thousands of Christian pilgrims, who normally come to Bethlehem from around the world on Christmas Eve; but instead, I saw thousands of smiling Palestinians with their AK-47 rifles raised high swaying back and forth, keeping time to O Come, All Ye Faithful.


In a place where people have fought over religion and over land since before the time of Abraham, for one brief instant, there was peace and harmony.


Philip L. Roberts is a 27-year member of AGEHR and lives near Chicago. He has 30 years of experience conducting handbell choirs of all ages in several Protestant traditions and also directs two community handbell ensembles. After a 20-year engineering career, Phil decided to fully pursue his passion—music—and returned to school fulltime earning a music degree. Phil is married with one grandchild, two grown stepchildren, and a son in college.


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