Religion plays a big role in the life of Palestinians - and integrates itself into politics, culture, society and ethics - like no other place in the world. In Bethlehem Palestinian Christians and Muslims have experienced good relations and have demonstrated solidarity and support for each other on many occasions. There is a shared history among the Palestinians in Bethlehem that has created good relations throughout history. The concept of coexistence is very strong in Bethlehem and reflected in the good relations among those who live in the city. Today in Bethlehem, however, Christianity is experiencing a crisis. This is not due to the growth of so-called Islamic fundamentalism or the persecution of "believers" by their Muslim neighbors, misrepresentations that are unfortunately used to distract from the realities of occupation.
Instead, the plight of the Palestinian Christian is very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both experience injustices every day as a result of oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli Occupation.
Bethlehem is about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. Although only about 20% of Palestinians in Bethlehem are Christians, Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem have been living together for centuries. They are neighbors, friends and classmates. Both have suffered from the Israeli occupation for over sixty years and both have showed steadfastness in the face of oppression. Like their Muslim neighbors, who are also prevented at checkpoints and roadblocks from making pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Christians in Bethlehem are denied basic religious freedoms, routinely prohibited from traveling very short distances to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity - the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are commemorated.
Christmas celebrations are unique in Bethlehem, the town in which Jesus was born. We start celebrating a month before, Christians and Muslims joining together for the lighting of the Christmas tree downtown in Nativity Square. On Christmas Eve there will a parade through the town. Scouts will fill the air with the music of their bagpipes and the cadence of their drums. And some people will dress up like Santa Claus and give out sweets.
Shared history and shared celebrations are ingredients that have brought people together for centuries, but what about the future?
In his book "Moral Imagination," John Paul Lederach prescribes re-imagining the past because the past never dies or go away. It rather lies before us and is present every day. We cannot forget about our past but we can transform its energy toward inclusive, just and equal relationships. A peaceful future isn't impossible to attain. It already exists among us in the aspirations for change that the vast majority of people in their hearts and souls.
Many Palestinians are so stuck in the past that they are unable to see a bright future. Not only they are unable to forget the past but they are frustrated with their present situation. They feel that their present is nothing more than a repeated history. They are afraid of the future and unable to even imagine it. They fear that the future of their kids will be the same as their own present and that of their parents.
Could the future bring the Palestinians together? There is a need for constructive change processes that emphasize the capacity of building new things and hoping for a better future. Conflict transformation stresses building constructive change out of the energy created by conflict. By focusing this energy on the underlying relationships and social structures, constructive changes can be brought about and creative ways can be generated to shape a better future. However, the image of what we wish to create, and what we would ideally like to see in place require us to dream and make wishes.
"What do you wish for Christmas and for the New Year?" is a question I asked more than 100 Palestinians in Bethlehem this past week to better understand their frustrating reality and at the same time to encourage them to transform the negative energy of their past and help them imagine a brighter future.
Some people mentioned spiritual gifts like love, faith and hope. They felt that people have lost their faith in God and are therefore unable to reconcile with each other. Mrs. Ghada Rabee, a mother of three, believes that "only when people return to God and to his teachings of mercy will change happen." Mr. Fuad Giacaman, a father of four, said: "I can no longer watch all the violence on the news! It is very sad how people have lost their humanity. I hope for world peace and end of human suffering."
Other people wished for the end of the occupation and freedom for Palestine. These people have suffered tremendously from the Israeli occupation. They are very sad because they lost family members as a result of the conflict. Mrs. Emyassar Abu Faraj is a mother who lost her twenty-three year old son during the Israeli invasion to Bethlehem in 2002. "The war on Gaza, that resulted in the destruction of some areas in Gaza and the death to over one thousand people, revived a lot of the sad memories of my belated son...I hope that no mother would have to suffer from losing her children."
Like those who wish for world peace, these wish for peace and justice for the Palestinian people. They are not activists nor are they affiliated to any political group. They are simply ordinary people who are frustrated with the Israeli occupation and consider it the source of hatred and evil. Roger Salameh, a 27-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem, argues "for us to live in peace, the occupation must end." His Christmas wish is for "a free country recognized by the world."
Another group of people wishes for a better life situation for themselves and for their relatives and friends. Some of them - like Rania Murra, 34, who runs an organization that focuses on women empowerment - say: "I want to finish my master's degree in gender studies.... I just want to have a normal life." Others wish for food security, health, jobs and reconciliation with their relatives and neighbors. They want to challenge the depressing reality that surrounds them and live lives despite all the odds.
"All I want for Christmas is Justice!" proclaims a big banner hanging next to the Christmas tree in Bethlehem. I myself have been experiencing the Israeli occupation all my life. I've heard people talking about peace and justice since I was a little boy. A lot of people were lost struggling for peace and justice. I have been actively working towards achieving peace and bringing justice for the Palestinians since 2000. I haven't given up hope and I will keep working to bring about positive change.
"I have a dream" and I don't care how disappointing it has been working to achieve that dream. But I know that my dream is possible. I know that in process of achieving my dream I will encounter a lot of failure, a lot of pain. Sometimes when I am alone and I see all the injustices, I doubt my faith and I start asking why this is happening to us? Palestinians are just trying to take care of their families.
I know, however, that I shouldn't give up on my dream no matter how hard it is. I know there will be some hard times but they won't stay; they will pass. I know that there are a lot of people who like to complain but they are not very willing to do anything about their situation and they don't work on their dream because they are afraid of failure.
I will never accept living my life as a victim. When faced with disappointment, I have to believe in myself and believe that I can make a difference. I won't let anyone to steal my dream, and I won't give up until I attain it.