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Trump and Pence unnerve Holy Land Christians

Bethlehem Christians fear Trump move on Jerusalem will create religious tensions that boomerang on them.

Bethlehem. A week before Christmas, there were only a handful of tourists snapping photos of the huge decorated tree in Manger Square, with its strings of red and white lights. The large plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity was nearly empty except for a handful of visiting clergy.

Chalk the absence of visitors up to President Trump's Jerusalem speech, which outraged Muslims, scared off tourists, and unnerved Christian clerics.  It also bushwhacked  Vice President Pence's planned (now postponed) trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Cairo, which was meant to express solidarity with Mideast Christians. Church leaders were refusing to meet him.

"Who was advising Trump?" one prominent Bethlehem Christian asked me plaintively. Good question. Because the backlash against Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital makes one wonder what Trump and Pence thought they would gain.

Perhaps Trump thought his move would advance the "ultimate [Israel-Palestinian peace] deal" that he tasked his son-in-law and real estate lawyer to devise. But instead, he has doomed the effort.

And then there is Pence – a fervent Christian who urged the president to keep his pledge to his evangelical base and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.  If the veep thought this move would help Holy Land Christians, he was very wrong.

For starters, the president's move wrecked a pre-Christmas tourist season that is especially important to Palestinian Christians.

"Before the Trump statement, we thought this would be the best year in the past 10 years for tourism," I was told by Maher Canawati, who, with his father, Nicola, owns the legendary Three Arches gift shops in Bethlehem, specializing in mother of pearl and carved olive wood objects. Living in Bethlehem since the early 17th  century, the family has managed to navigate political challenges over time;  portraits of ancestors look down on Canawati, including one of his father posing with a Bethlehem Boy Scout troop,

"The city has 50 hotels, 20 built in the last four years," says Canawati. "Everyone thought things would be better. But now there have been many cancellations after the statement." Bethlehem's economy is at stake.

On a broader scale, Trump's move brought the Jerusalem issue back into the global limelight, which stokes religious tensions here. That also unnerves local Christians.

A U.N. vote Thursday calling for Trump to rescind his Jerusalem move passed by 128-9, with 35 abstentions. And the United States was outnumbered by 14-1  when it vetoed a similar resolution from the U.N. Security Council.

Trump's promise to withdraw aid to nations that voted yes puts the president in conflict with major Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt (whose Coptic Church leaders also rebuffed a planned Pence meeting).

"After Trump's statement," says Canawati, "churches felt it was wise not to welcome someone who made such a big statement against the Islamic world."

Ordinary Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem worry that Trump's perceived challenge to Muslim holy sites will destabilize the city and affect them.  They are a minority who have lived for centuries alongside their Muslim Palestinian brethren, and always hope for calm.

On the West Bank, Palestinian Christians do not face persecution for their religious beliefs.  Christian restaurants in Bethlehem serve alcohol without any problem, and Christian women walk with hair uncovered.  "In Bethlehem, we are a minority, but the Palestinian government supports Christians here," Canawati said. "The post of mayor always goes to a Christian."

But political tensions have caused a steady emigration of Christian Palestinians to North and South America. Thirty-five years ago, Christians made up at least 70 percent of Bethlehem's population and Muslims 30 percent; today the percentages are reversed.  Canawati told me there are 3,000 members of his family living in Honduras and only 250 in Bethlehem.

"Most Christian Palestinians feel caught in the middle," says Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, a Brooklynite and longtime resident of Jerusalem, who heads the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which aims to help Christians remain there. "Israeli soldiers look at Christians as Arabs, while Palestinian radicals see them as traitors to the cause."

And the huge concrete border wall and fence that Israel has built to separate itself from most of the West Bank adversely affects Palestinian Christians, cutting them off from worshiping at Christianity's holiest sites in Jerusalem, and depriving many of jobs. Snaking around Bethlehem, it often turns what would be a 10-minute journey to Jerusalem into a lengthy ordeal, with Israeli checkpoints – if a Bethlehemite can get a permit to enter Jerusalem at all.

So what Christian Palestinians hope for most is that religious tensions will be tamped down, and they can get on with their businesses and worship.

"People are fed up with riots and demonstrations and resolutions," says Canawati. "We just want the simplest thing – freedom of movement to visit our country from north to south, pray in our churches, and definitely demolish this separation wall that separates us from friends.

"I have a lot of Jewish friends and relations with Jewish companies," he adds, and they try to overcome the political divide.

If a two-state solution ever happens, Canawati hopes it will have open borders "because we cannot separate Jerusalem from Bethlehem or East Jerusalem from West."

Trump's unilateral move on Jerusalem gained nothing for Israel, whose capital is and will remain in the Holy City.  It served only to stir up religious tensions and disturb the Christians whom Pence claims he cares for.

"We pray God will give wisdom to leaders," says Canawati.  "Everybody's waiting." We in America are waiting, too.