David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Church of the Nativity


The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem celebrates the birth-place of Jesus. The entrance is deliberately narrow and small so that everyone has to stoop in humility. Columns appropriated from Roman temples line the nave. Cramped stairs lead down to a cave. Even if everything here is a matter of tradition and has no historic foundation, the Church has the numinous atmosphere fitting for the essential role it has in Christianity.

In the war of 1967, an Israeli shell came through the roof. A cleric who identified himself as the Archbishop of Pella was standing fully robed in a cloud of dust and smoke as I entered, reporting for the Daily Telegraph. Israeli paratroopers were also present. In later years I often went there, and once saw the novelist Graham Greene with his lady friend crossing Holy Manger Square in front of the church.
Gunmen from the PLO occupied the church for five weeks in the intifada of 2002, defiling and fouling it until the Israelis got them out. A two-state solution is improbable, to say the bare minimum, but if it were to materialize, the church would again be under the PLO, this time by consent.
Bethlehem used to be at least three-quarters Christian, but that figure is down to about a quarter as its inhabitants emigrate to escape the PLO. Christmas is of course the high point of the town’s calendar. Victor Batarseh, the mayor, is a distinguished medical specialist, aged 76, and Roman Catholic.  He marked this Christmas with a speech calling for a complete boycott of Israel. This would be suicide. The day the Christians are at the exclusive mercy of the PLO, and never mind their Hamas compatriots, is when this church would become a mosque. An omen: Ayia Sofia, once the Byzantine cathedral of Istanbul, was converted into a mosque, then a museum, and under rising Islamism is now a mosque again.
While the mayor was setting out his proposal, a hundred or so Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks were fighting each other in the body of the church, armed with the broomsticks they were supposed to use for a clean-up. Such disgraces have a history going back a long way. Robert Curzon describes in his classic Monasteries in the Levant a fight he witnessed in the 1830s in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which Ottoman soldiers had to intervene to stop Christians killing each other. Once I had cause to go to the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur outside Jerusalem, only to find that a monk of one Christian persuasion had murdered a monk of another persuasion. Rivalry between Christians was one reason why the Holy Land of the Crusaders was lost to Islam. The bigotry remains as primitive and destructive as the Sunni–Shia divide is to Islam, and when there are no more Christians in any Muslim country it will be too late for regrets.
The front page of La Repubblica, the respectable Italian daily, reports a bit of news that it finds as comic and futile as children building a sandcastle. The European Union is proposing to take out a patent for broccoli. Yes, that green vegetable. Aubergines and tomatoes are to follow, but apparently not potatoes. It’s to do with genetic modification. The EU is another arena where rivals who ought to know better go in for this kind of assault under the guise of protection. The British Treasury has let it be known that preparations are in hand to deal with the collapse of the euro. With any luck, plain broccoli will outlive the EU.


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