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‘Unwrapping Bethlehem’ explores Jesus’ birthplace today
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BEIRUT: Every Christmas Bethlehem is evoked in song as the birthplace of Jesus. This year, “Bethlehem Unwrapped” aims to take a closer look at what life is like for Palestinians who live there today.

“People in the U.K. and many other parts of the world are very familiar with the traditional sentimental Victorian kind of images of Bethlehem through Christmas carols,” Justin Butcher told The Daily Star in a telephone interview from London. “So if you unwrap that, what does Bethlehem today look like?

“Well, it’s got an eight-meter-high separation wall around it, so there’s this sort of unwrapping, which gives this very shocking image of present day Bethlehem.

“But then there’s a subsequent unwrapping ... we’re saying, ‘Come and see beyond the wall the amazing hope and spirit and vision of the people of Bethlehem and of the West Bank.’”

“Bethlehem Unwrapped” opened Dec. 23 at St. James’s Church, London, with a broadcast message from Sami Awad, the director of Bethlehem’s Holy Land Trust, whose Future Peace Makers Appeal aims to educate young Palestinians in nonviolent resistance to occupation. Proceeds from the festival, which continues until Jan. 5, will help fund the charity.

Butcher organized the festival in collaboration with St James’s Church rector Lucy Winkett, who has been working in the West Bank for 12 years, and with the help of nine charities – secular, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli.

The fine art component to the festival, “All They Paint is the Wall,” is an exhibition of Bethlehem children’s artwork. It is supplemented by an interactive installation in the church grounds – a life-size replica of a section of the Israeli separation wall, on which visitors are invited to write a message of solidarity with the people of Bethlehem, a poem or prayer, or to draw a picture expressing a personal response to the barrier.

“There’s some wonderful stuff developing,” Butcher said. “A quote from Albert Camus appeared on the wall a few days ago: ‘Live to the point of tears.’ Somebody else wrote a quote from Abraham Lincoln: ‘Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?’ People [are] calling for the wall to fall and of course people are expressing the opposite view.

“We had an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who came the other day [who] wrote on the wall: ‘This wall saves lives.’ We said: ‘We believe in free speech and if that’s what you want to write that’s fine.’ We’re not censoring any comments. The only thing we have said is that if there is a comment written on the wall which is racist or an incitement to violence or ... ethnic or religious hatred, then we have to paint over that.”

A number of well-known Palestinian and Israeli artists, as well as British performers whose work has links with the West Bank, are participating in “Bethlehem Unwrapped.”

Sunday evening’s poetry slam will be followed Monday by an evening of stand-up comedy. Bethlehem resident Leila Sansour’s comedy documentary “Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army” will be screened Jan 2, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.

On Jan. 3, Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi will prepare a Bethlehem Christmas dinner, featuring regional dishes, followed by an evening of dance led by Palestinian troupe Al-Zaytouna.

A number of local and international speakers will contribute to the panel discussion “Both Sides of the Barrier – Separation of Security” on Jan. 4. The festival closes Jan. 5 with a concert by icon-smashing U.K. violinist Nigel Kennedy, accompanied by singers from the Tallis Scholars and renowned Palestinian musician Reem Kelani.

The festival has elicited a passionate social media response. Facebook is home to a fierce debate, with some congratulating the organizers while others accuse them of being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

These accusations are the result of a misunderstanding of the festival’s aims, Butcher said. “We’ve made it very clear ... that that’s not true,” he said. “What this is about is calling for equal rights for Palestinians. In 2004 the International Court of Justice declared the wall to be illegal according to international law and said that it should be dismantled. So we’re simply calling for that to happen, which in my view is relatively uncontroversial.

“To anyone who [opposes the festival] I would just say, ‘Come down and see.’ ... This is a Christian church standing up in solidarity with the rights of an oppressed and occupied people. It’s not anti-anybody.”

“Bethlehem Unwrapped” continues at Piccadilly’s St. James’s Church, London until Jan. 5. For more information, please visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 30, 2013, on page 16.
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