I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in the city of Bethlehem. We would not have known salvation if it weren’t for passionate evangelists from the United States who unselfishly came to this land and taught us about Jesus Christ.
Even though I grew up within a 15-minute walk from the area where the Prince of Peace was born, spiritual and political turmoil is imprinted in my memories. Even now, as far back as I can remember, there hasn’t been a day that was free of violence, riots, gunshots, persecution, the effects of war or death. My childhood had much turmoil, but thankfully I was anchored in the message of Jesus Christ.
Christmas Then and Now
Memories of great times spent walking day and night in the streets of Bethlehem, especially during Christmas, are a permanent reminder to me of the joy of why Jesus Christ came. Before the year 2000, Bethlehem had a thriving population of Christian families and businesses. Some reports state that at one point Bethlehem was more than 82 percent Christian. So when Christmas came, you felt the Christian presence.
During the Christmas season, pilgrims would come from all around the world.
Municipalities from other countries would donate Christmas ornaments and other decorations to the city of Bethlehem. There would be many lights that depicted baby Jesus as Asian, black or of another ethnic group. One would see many carved ornaments, hand-made angels and mangers. It was a great reminder of how large the world is, but how small Bethlehem makes it seem.
It is very different now. The spirit is different, and so are the people. The ratio of Christians to the general population has almost completely reversed, and the gap has grown between Christians and other religious groups in Bethlehem.
Because of constant war and clashes, Bethlehem is now separated from Jerusalem by a wall, which has limited traveling for many of the people living here, especially the Christians. This reality, as well as the growing fear, persecution and discrimination, has led younger Christian families to flee from this land.
Those who have stayed behind are now the minority, and many are living in survival mode. This has made Christmas a time when everyone celebrates the season but not the reason.
I have talked with many in the Muslim faith who say they are happy to be celebrating Christmas. That sounds good—and I am glad they have some joy in this season—but do not be misled about the extent of their celebration. I was in a store one evening on the main road in Bethlehem. The store sold Christmas lights and decorations. I couldn’t help but turn my head toward cars that were driving by with horns honking. Many of these cars, which are designed to fit four passengers, had about eight in them, with some people sitting on the windows dressed in Santa costumes as they blared loud music and waved the Palestinian national flag or flags representing the government and its leaders.
A Muslim man turned to me and said, “This is a great season. I am happy we are celebrating this time with you all. I am a Muslim, and my home has a Christmas tree. I have lights in the window, and my daughters love Santa Claus. We are uniting with you.”
“What about Jesus?” I asked him. “Have you thought of why we celebrate Christmas?”
He said no.
“Would you celebrate Jesus as well?” I asked.
He replied, “Well, we like Him, all respect to the Prophet Essa [Jesus].”
With a smile I replied, “My friend, you are not celebrating the true Christmas; you are celebrating a season but leaving out the reason.”
He smiled and walked out.
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy for moderate Muslims who are open to partially recognizing this season. But they are only interested in the feeling that the season gives. In addition, the media and the Palestinian Authority government push propaganda to the world that Muslims and Christians celebrate each other’s holidays and that there is tolerance and acceptance. In reality, it is just man’s hidden motives, which have stolen Christmas from Jesus and have turned the true reason into a political symbol.
I must remind myself that there is hope for bringing Christ back into Christmas. I believe this hope requires all believers to pray. It also requires your standing with us, your brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, to pray and support our efforts to make Jesus the focus of this season. It also might require you to come walk the streets and be a sobering reminder that this season is really about Jesus.
The Church in Jerusalem
Many ask me what the situation is for the churches in Jerusalem, which is located about five miles north of Bethlehem. With faith in God and continuing the legacy of my uncle, who was martyred in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, I answered the call to come to Jerusalem and establish a church for the Christian Arab community. For nearly a decade, we have faced enormous challenges in finding a permanent home for our church community.
Pressure from radical elements in our area forced landlord after landlord to evict us. We were fortunate in the past few years to rent from a kind and moderate Muslim family, but this has come with a price. Our building has been vandalized, and church members have been physically attacked on many occasions.
Despite all this, our church has seen God’s blessing, and church membership has grown to a point where people are standing in the hallway to hear the Lord’s message. Unfortunately, due to continuing pressure, we know that at any moment we might have to leave. I have scouted for other places in Jerusalem where we can permanently plant a church. Another temporary solution of renting a place is not viable; our church community needs permanent roots. With God’s guidance, I was directed to another kind, moderate Muslim willing to sell us a building and its property.
In the birthplace of Christianity, Satan’s forces are alive and well, trying to smother the message of Christ. So I have recommitted myself to a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ promised: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).
As believers, we know the message of Psalm 23: No matter the challenge, God is our comforter. However, the end of the Psalm also says “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As my church community begins praying and fasting, asking Him for a miracle to plant permanent roots for our Faith House, I ask my Christian brothers and sisters to pray along with me.
Missing in the City of His Birth
In 2012, while driving down Bethlehem’s streets and its thoroughfares, including Manger Street, I was looking for Jesus in the public square. Decorations were up, as were twinkle lights, mannequins of Santa and snowmen. But Jesus had gone missing in the public square. No room for Him here in the little town of His birth. This shook me and inspired my team and me to covertly and quickly create a huge billboard banner for all to see on Manger Street in Bethlehem. It read: “Jesus: Born to Die and Rise Again. Invite Him in Your Heart so that You too Might Live. Merry Christmas.”
This was our gift to Bethlehem. In less than a week, the Bethlehem municipality and mayor’s office began to feel pressure from the local community to remove the 1,240 square-foot Christmas billboard. Vandals cut the electric cable surrounding the sign to ensure that it would not be lit at night. Barraged with phone calls, the municipality informed me that many were campaigning, asking us to take down the sign. Out of fear of repercussions, no one was willing to sell us electricity access to the billboard.
We decided to stand strong. For more than two weeks, our team and I went out every evening with a portable generator and several high beam spotlights, and we lit the sign ourselves. And there’s a great ending to this story: For many reasons, the sign stayed up much longer than anyone anticipated—until June 2013! We received many encouraging calls. People told us, “We commend you for standing up,” and “It is time we see the local community stand up for Jesus.”
Thank you for praying for the Holy Land and its people—for making Bethlehem and Jerusalem a part of your prayers. ©2013 Steven Khoury
For more information about Steven’s church and ministry, go to holylandmissions.org.