As she prepares to leave office, Bethlehem’s first female mayor has made an impassioned plea for peace and justice for the besieged city and the wider region.
Vera Baboun, who is a Christian, claimed the mayorship of Bethlehem in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Ms Baboun led the Fatah party’s bloc of candidates to a surprise win in 2012 but won’t be standing in the upcoming council elections in October.
As she reflected on her time in office, including a trip to Australia in May sponsored by the Australian Government and supported by the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network, Ms Baboun said resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on land considered sacred by three faiths should be the concern of everyone.
“Peace on the table is the responsibility of all humanity,” Ms Baboun said.
“The Palestinian cause is the cause of humanity and justice. I call for all humanity to put it on the table.
“This is the Holy Land, the origin of all faiths that pray for peace. It’s time that there was peace in this Holy Land for us all. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, for all of us.
“If the Holy Land does not witness peace, can you witness peace in all the world? It’s a human and global call for peace.”
Any flaring up of tension comes at a high cost to Bethlehem.
“Remember that Bethlehem is a city of pilgrims and therefore the main industry in Jerusalem relates to tourism,” Ms Baboun said.
“That is very important for us because when we witness a peaceful solution, a peace process, then Bethlehem’s wellness, Bethlehem’s economy also will prosper because we depend on tourism.”
Another major consequence of the conflict is the Israeli ‘separation barrier’, which cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and the rest of Israel.
“In Bethlehem there is the Church of the Nativity and in Jerusalem there is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so that path of faith between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is now closed because whenever you want to enter Jerusalem you have to have permits,” Ms Baboun said.
“Usually on Easter and Christmas the Israeli administration issues permits to people but normally the access to this place and Jerusalem is controlled.”
The separation barrier also cuts into olive groves and other lands that Palestinian livelihoods have depended on in a region with very high unemployment.
Ms Baboun, who has been an academic and school principal, points out that the Palestinians are a well-educated people but are frustrated by being hemmed in by the Israeli security arrangements.
“People with degrees are everywhere; you have people who are educated but cannot find enough job opportunities,” she said.
“So people in many cases have to work in occupations that don’t recognise their qualifications.”
Further encroaching on the space available in Bethlehem, and also scarce resources such as water, are the expanding Israeli settlements, which have been long condemned as illegal by the international community.
“We have almost 19 settlements in Bethlehem and outside almost 22 settlements on territory that is supposed to be the State of Palestine under the 1967 agreement,” Ms Baboun said.
“They affect the way we use our land for our daily needs.”
The challenges of living in Bethlehem have seen many people leave, especially the young and educated, and migrate to South America, Europe, the US, Australia and the Gulf states as part of a large Palestinian diaspora.
Christians in particular are leaving, but Ms Baboun said it was wrong to think of the Arab Christian community purely in terms of its diminished numerical presence.
“I usually don’t like the term minority, we are the originals,” she said.
“We are becoming less in numbers but not the minority and that is very, very important. Christians in Bethlehem are an existence of quality not only of quantity.”
She pointed out the first modern school in the Middle East was established in Bethlehem by Christians and also the first hospital and university were Christian.
Ms Baboun can also claim to be a historical ground breaker.
There has only been one other female mayor in the Palestinian territories and Ms Baboun was the only woman leader in the last cycle of elections.
“For a woman to lead a city like Bethlehem with all the challenges that it faces, for a woman to lead Bethlehem – the global city of the Christian message – was by itself an advantage on the national and international level,” Ms Baboun said.
“However, some individuals – and this is a personal attitude – might not have been accepting or liking that a woman leads the city. But I would never have been mayor without being elected by men and women, Christian and Muslims.
“So this means for me, and it was very important for me, that my community carries a respect for women.”
Ms Baboun said her personal plans on leaving office are not clear but she is fully committed to finalising all the projects that she can.
One of those is the restoration of the World Heritage-listed Church of the Nativity, the traditionally nominated birthplace of Jesus, which is something Ms Baboun spoke to a number of different churches about donating to during her visit to Australia earlier this year.
Ms Baboun said an unforgettable personal Christmas moment was praying in the Church of the Nativity Grotto following midnight mass.
“That was bliss for me,” she said.
“Praying for all, praying for Bethlehem, praying for peace.”
On this subject she had a final message.
“Peace needs those who will act for peace, act for wholeness,” she said.
“We need more than prayers we need people to act because we are desperate to have some normal living, in order to see peace, in order to find peace.”
This year, the Uniting Church is launching an awareness-raising and activism campaign on the situation facing Palestinian Christians and the Palestinian people. For more information see: https://assembly.uca.org.au/palestine.