A Christmas thought of Bethlehem

IT was our turn for Christmas this year. Twelve of the extended family tucking into turkey and singing traditional carols around the piano.

We sang one of my favourites,

'O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.'

But of course far away from our cosy family scene, in the real Bethlehem, the times are bleaker even than the night of the nativity itself. In the story of the birth of Christ, Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem, a town under an army of occupation, to register for the census.

It was a politically troubled time in Palestine. The occupying army of Romans were unpopular, and frequently subject to what today would be called terrorist attacks.

Today Bethlehem is under Israeli military occupation with its residents, including Christian Palestinians, often imprisoned at home, under 24 hour curfew. When the Church of the Nativity, a holy place of pilgrimage for thousands at this time of year, was besieged by the Israeli Army in April this year, the International Red Cross were refused access.

There is little to celebrate in Bethlehem this Christmas, in a land were violence has replaced reason.

Only two years ago peace seemed possible. The Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority were on the brink of a historical compromise; the only outcome which in the end can bring peace.

They were close to agreement that a Palestinian and Israeli State could be created to live side by side as neighbours. It wasn't going to be easy, but the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

Then the extremists took over and we see that terrible alternative. Ariel Sharon, a man named as a war criminal over his part in the massacres of Palestinian refugees at the Shabrs and Shatila staged a provacative appearance at the Temple Mount.

Some Palestinians overreacted with violent stone throwing incidencts, oten by children. Stones were met with bullets from the Israeli army, leaving 216 students killed in the school year 2001-02. The most desperate and extreme Palestinians turned to the obscenity of the suicide bomb, often indiscrimately murdering Israeli civilians, including children.

Meanwhile, Britain, the USA and the world community has allowed the situation to fester, providing the poisonous culture on which international terrorism thrives. More than Iraq the Palestinian question causes instability.

So at this time of good will and peace to all mankind, when war seems every closer, we should especially remember the people of Bethlehem. There must be urgent initiatives in the New Year to bring a new settlement in the Middle East with a viable Palestinian State and an Israel within secure borders.

Perhaps the closing words of the carol can remind us that even at the bleakest time, like the story of the Nativity itself, we should look forward to the future:

'Yet in thy dark strees shineth the everlasting light;the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.'