“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by, yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hope and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” — O Little Town of Bethlehem
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem Ephrathah was a rather insignificant, small city. Yet, it is the place where our humble Savior chose to be born. His birth in Bethlehem fulfilled the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah who wrote more than six hundred years earlier:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2).
Now, more than two thousand years after the birth of the Messiah, the city of Bethlehem remains. In fact, more than two million tourists visit the city each year to see the Church of the Nativity—a church built atop the cave where many believe Jesus was born—and the Shepherds’ Field, which commemorates the place where a host of angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus.
When we think of Bethlehem, our minds go to these ancient stones, remembering the city’s rich history because of Jesus. But what about the “living stones”—the believers in Jesus who live in this ancient city? This article will take a look at what life is like for Arab-Palestinian believers living in Bethlehem today.
Life is not easy living in Bethlehem, Judea (the West Bank). Palestinians living in the West Bank face high unemployment rates, poverty, and poor-quality infrastructure—largely due to government corruption. The cost of living is high, and many need to work more than one job just to make ends meet. They also face restrictions and checkpoints due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are the conditions every Arab-Palestinian living in Bethlehem faces, but believers in Jesus living in Bethlehem (and the Palestinian Territories, in general) face even greater challenges.
The majority (ninety percent) of Bethlehem’s population are Muslims, while the remaining ten percent are Christians. The Christian population has steadily declined over the years and continues to decline due to political unrest, economic pressures, and religious persecution. According to the National Catholic Reporter, “In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86 percent Christian. But by 2016, the Christian population dipped to just 12 percent, according to Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun. Across the West Bank, Christians now account for less than 2 percent of the population, though in the 1970s, Christians were 5 percent of the population. In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, today there are just 11,000 Christians.”
Open Doors, a ministry dedicated to supporting the persecuted church, has ranked the Palestinian Territories as forty-ninth on its list of fifty countries where Christians experience the worst persecution. Although the official laws of the Palestinian Authority (PA) allow for religious freedom while declaring Islam the official religion, Christians are nonetheless treated as second-class citizens and face many societal and familial pressures for their faith.
Last year, journalist Edy Cohen reported on numerous attacks against Christians in the Palestinian Territories, including Bethlehem. One incident included Islamic gunmen firing at Christians in the village of Jifna and throwing petrol bombs at them, while demanding that they pay the jizya tax—a special tax which the Quran calls to be levied upon non-Muslims in Islamic countries. Believers called upon the PA to intervene, but to no avail.
Another incident included the vandalism of a church in Bethlehem. The vandals desecrated the building and stole expensive equipment. This was the fifth time the Bethlehem church was attacked, including an arson attack in 2015 that caused the church to close for a long period of time. “The arson, in addition to acts of rioting and vandalism over the years, have received no coverage in the Palestinian media…. The only thing that interests the PA is that events of this kind not be leaked to the media. Fatah [the controlling party of the PA] regularly exerts heavy pressure on Christians not to report the acts of violence and vandalism from which they frequently suffer, as such publicity could damage the PA’s image,” wrote Cohen.
In an article for International Christian Concern, Dr. Linda Burkle—a scholar on international relations—further explained the difficulties Palestinian Christians face living in Bethlehem:
“During one of my trips to Israel, I spoke with the pastor of a prominent church in Bethlehem. He shared how difficult it is to be an Arab Christian leader there. Although his church provides a variety of much-needed social services to Christians and Muslims alike, he has been shot at several times, his church has been bombed, and his brother was killed because of his faith.”
Burkle went on to share about another experience talking with a young Palestinian Christian woman in Bethlehem named Bushra (name changed) who had recently returned home after graduating from law school in the United States:
“She said that her siblings chose to live abroad after schooling rather to return to Bethlehem. I asked her why she returned. She stated that she was concerned that a Christian presence in Bethlehem would disappear and she felt it was her duty to stay despite the hardships and persecution.” 
Despite the daily persecution and hardships Palestinian believers face, some—like Bushra— make the decision to remain in Bethlehem and the surrounding Palestinian cities to be a light for Jesus. One such example includes Ismail (name changed), a Palestinian convert to Christianity from Islam.
Ismail was a faithful Muslim, and as a teenager, he had begun to commit the Quran to memory. After studying and memorizing two chapters on Mary and Jesus, he became curious to learn more about Jesus, and he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by his father and other Muslim leaders. So Ismail began to study the Bible with his cousin, who had requested a Bible from a Christian ministry in Europe. Together, they corresponded through mail with the Christian ministry, asking many questions about what it meant to follow Jesus.
A few months later, one of Ismail’s Christian neighbors overhead him talking about Christianity and introduced him to a group of Christian students his age. He continued to ask many questions of both them and their pastor, but some doubts still remained. Ismail decided to pray directly to God to see if Christianity was true:
“I was fascinated by the way Christians speak directly to the Lord in prayer. So I remembered some prayers I heard Christians pray. When I was alone, I closed my eyes and repeated those words to see what would happen. I told the Lord I was a sinner and prayed about His love. The words were amazing, but in my heart, there was still doubt,” Ismail told Open Doors.
He then described a short dream God gave him to confirm to him that Christianity was true: “I saw a white face and heard a voice: ‘Follow Me.’ Nothing more. But it was enough. I made the decision to follow Him.”
That decision cost Ismail everything. “I lost all my status, all my family. I was forced to leave the house. My father told me to leave and never come back again,” Ismail said. The group of students that helped to lead him to Jesus quickly became his new family, and Ismail experiences the joy of the Lord that even persecution cannot take away. Now, Ismail is committed to reaching others in the Palestinian Territories for the gospel: “My faith is not something that affects just the Sunday prayer time and church visits, like it is for some Christians. For me—someone who lost his entire normal life—my faith in Christ is everything. It fills my whole existence,” said Ismail.
At Alliance for the Peace of Jerusalem, we believe that part of our mandate, to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6), includes praying for all people in the Holy Land—both Jewish people and Arabs alike. Let us pray for our Arab-Palestinian brothers and sisters in Messiah—the “living stones”—in Bethlehem and the wider Palestinian Territories as they boldly remain in the faith and proclaim it to others despite hardships and religious persecution.
by Jennifer Miles
 Linda Burkle, “Bethlehem’s Beleaguered Christians,” International Christian Concern, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.persecution.org/2020/01/14/bethlehems-beleaguered-christians/#_ftn3.
 Matt London, “Why Holy Land Christians are Leaving Bethlehem, Birthplace of Jesus: Pete Hegseth Investigates,” FoxNews.com, December 2, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/media/christians-leaving-bethlehem-pete-hegseth-fox-nation.
 Melanie Lidman, “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow Over Christmas,” National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2016, https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas.
 Open Doors, “Palestinian Territories,” accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.opendoors.org.hk/en/palestinian-territories.
 Linda Burkle, “Bethlehem’s Beleaguered Christians.”
 Edy Cohen, “The Persecution of Christians in the PA,” The Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/the-persecution-of-christians-in-the-pa-591404.
 Linda Burkle, “Bethlehem’s Beleaguered Christians.”
 Brian, “On the West Bank: Muslim Man Becomes Secret Believer and Loses It All for Jesus,” Open Doors, August 29, 2017, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/west-bank-muslim-man-becomes-secret-believer-loses-jesus.