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The Christian Post – The freedom of Bethlehem Christians is becoming endangered as the Israel occupation set up a new checkpoint at the city’s border, turning it into what many have called “an open-air prison.”

Bethlehem , a historical city in Christianity where Jesus Christ was born some 2,000 years ago, has long been affected by the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since 2002, the construction of a barrier in the Israeli occupied territories to separate most of the West Bank from Israel , East Jerusalem, and Israeli settlement blocks, has made it difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church in Jerusalem .

While the city was once a destination of Christian pilgrims from all over the world, the separation barrier highly discourages tourism and hampers the economy of Bethlehem .

According to a statement from the Mayor of Bethlehem Dr. Victor Batarseh on Bethlehem Media Center , Israeli authorities have started on Nov. 15 – the Palestinian Independence Day – operating a new checkpoint at the northern entrance of Bethlehem .

Palestinians, foreign tourists and pilgrims leaving or entering Bethlehem are required to line in queue to be checked individually at the new checkpoint, including passport examination, and checking of things they bought through an x-ray device, Batarseh said.

A United Methodist Liaison in Bethlehem, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, described that after passing through the checkpoint, the track to Bethlehem led to a huge solid metal gate that is about 6- 8 inches thick and almost 8 meters high, according to sources from the International Center of Bethlehem (ICB). ICB is a Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented institution serving the whole Palestinian community.

According to Italy-based Asia news, priests, religious men and women and lay Christians in Bethlehem have recently launched an appeal to “Christian pilgrims,” urging them to bring concrete solidarity against this “modern barbarity.”

In a letter of appeal, they said, ” Bethlehem ’s Christians are closed in an open-air prison by an eight-meter wall, which is robbing them of land essential for their survival.”

They further condemned the closure of the traditional route to reach the Basilica of the Nativity and the opening of a new checkpoint as a form of “modern barbarism” to “strangle a town economically,” to impose “daily insecurity on a people,” and “to gross religious discrimination,” read the statement obtained by AsiaNews.

According to the 2005 international religious freedom report release recently by the U.S. Department of State, the barrier and its checkpoints also impede the movement of religious clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries.

The Israeli Government’s closure policy appeared to prevent several Christian religious leaders from reaching their congregations. In previous years, several clergymen reported that they were subject to harassment at checkpoints, the report added.

As more restrictions have imposed on Palestinian Christians, they were fear that ” Palestine is becoming a Muslim state,” AsiaNews reported the Bethlehem Christians as saying. Many Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have left the country since 2002…[Go To Full Story]