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No Christian can remain unaffected at the sight of the Temple of Christ's Birth, even if he is not religious. When thousands of people are visibly moved with emotion, the aura spreading in the atmosphere inevitably engulfs them.
Bethlehem is the only place in the Holy Land which is not connected to the Passion of Jesus and the path leading to his crucifixion. It is a pleasant place radiating a sweet sensation. As a Greek religious woman we met in Bethlehem told us: "Here Christians feel the joy of a new born child's welcoming into the world. The child that was meant to fundamentally change the course of the human race and give life a substantial meaning. Here, in the manger, is where time began".
The overwhelming majority of visitors in Bethlehem are women who wear kerchiefs on their heads, a sign of respect to the sacred place. The kerchiefs are not of the same colour and create an image of a colourful puzzle in the Church of the Nativity.
The crowds of pilgrims in Bethlehem are totally focused on the shrines and are oblivious to the military tension hovering in the region's atmosphere. Christians of every colour and race come from all over the world to fulfil a lifetime's purpose, which is to kneel before the place where Christ was born. Even if battles were raging beside them, this wouldn't be something that could distract them from their sacred duty.
In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any dangers for foreign visitors, as no Hebrew nor Palestinian would start feuding near the Christian pilgrimages. On the contrary, the two sides make sure that no foreigner is ever involved in their feuds. Besides, a portion of the Palestinians are Christians and some very devoted ones.
It would be good for someone to choose the right time to visit Bethlehem, as the fights between the Hebrews and the Palestinians are fluctuating. It is common that periods of tension cause weariness to the opponents and are usually followed by relative peacefulness. During these calm periods the number of the worshipers to the Holy Land dramatically increases.
The miracle of the Magicians
While in Bethlehem we did not come across individual tourists, but only organized groups. The journey to the Holy Land is a quite complicated, because the visitors have to go through repeated safety controls in guard rooms that separate Jerusalem from the West Bank. Groups usually go through check points faster than the individual visitors, who are thoroughly interrogated and may even be patted down.
All groups have a leader, who is also responsible for the sightseeing tour in the Church of the Nativity. Some guides describe rare events, making it worthwhile for people to stay near them in order to enrich their knowledge. That's how we learned about the way the Church of the Nativity was practically saved at the last minute from the Persian desecration in 614.
When the Persian soldiers, under Khosrau (Chosroes), invaded the temple, one of them observed the narthex's mosaic, which depicted the three Persian wizards offering gifts to baby Jesus. "Stop, this is where our compatriots had worshiped, this may mean something", he said to his companions.
She wasn't blindly searching
The Church of the Nativity was constructed by Saint Helen during the years 327-333 at the exact same place where Christ was born. This was already a place of worship for the Christians since 130, who knew its significance from their grandfathers' testimonies. On her missions to the Holy Land, Saint Helen was accompanied by the best archaeologists of the empire, who helped her locate the place of Christ's birth and burial. Their inquisitions were not too difficult, as the time that had passed since the physical presence of Christ in those places was not that long ago..
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS