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Usually flooded with the faithful, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Nativity Square sit virtually deserted as violence, curfews and closures keep pilgrims from near and far away from Bethlehem.
Life without Peace
Missionaries Leave Holy Land Turmoil with Hope
Lubbock-Avalanche Journal
Beth Pratt

Life in the land of Jesus is anything but peaceful today.

Yet, his birth was announced some 2,000 years ago by a multitude of angels, saying "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, good will toward men!" (Luke 2:14 NKJV.)

For three years, Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders have lived and worked among Arab Christians in the Palestinian communities, teaching in a Catholic school. As their last Christmas approaches and they prepare to return to the United States, they ponder the emotions and struggles of constant turmoil, suicide bombings and military reprisals.

To their friends stateside, the Sanders' send a message titled "The Prince of Peace in a Land without Peace," beginning with these familiar lines:

Who: Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders, Presbyterian missionaries. 

What: Documentary, "Salt of the Earth: Palestinian Christians in the Northern West Bank." 

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 7. 

Where: St. John's United Methodist Church, 1501 Univesity Ave. 

More information: for 2004 schedule, photos and journals.

"O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie,

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by..."

"This song stirs sweet memories in many of us ... a warm expectant feeling, nostalgia for the joys of Christmases past and anticipation for those of the future. What a beautiful picture it evokes, a peaceful, beautiful hamlet blessed with the wondrous birth of the Christ.

"But the reality back then must have been quite different. Imagine living under Roman occupations, with a local dictator who in a few days would order the murder of all baby boys. Imagine walking and riding on donkey back for miles and miles while nine months pregnant because of a no-exceptions government order.

Schoolchildren play in the schoolyard at the Latin Patriarchate School of Zababdeh.
"And imagine arriving in a town busting at the seams with people because of the census and then finding no place to rest (even for a woman on the verge of labor) except among animals.

"Imagine giving birth without a midwife (or doctor, or epidural, or clean room or bed) Not a very pretty picture. Not a very hopeful picture. Certainly not the origins people would expect for their glorified leader, the Anointed One. But this was the context of miracle, of the incarnation of God as man, the coming of the Prince of Peace.

"Today, as we look at Bethlehem we see neither a pretty nor a hopeful picture: Desolate streets, closed businesses, demolished buildings. Imagine living under a military occupation, being out of work for three years, not permitted to travel out of your town and sometimes, not allowed out of your home for days at a time.

"Not a very pretty nor a very hopeful picture."

"But again, this can be the context of miracle.  Christmas reminds us that God comes in the most unexpected ways and turns our expectations upside down.

"We, and our brothers and sisters in Christ here, pray that this may be one of those times, that this hopeless and violent time may become the context for a miracle of peace."

They finish their three years in Zababdeh "with mixed emotions over leaving this beautiful, suffering land."

Knowing first-hand the level of violence, they leave with worry, fear and sadness about what will happen to the friends and neighbors they have come to love.

But they also depart with a blessing, a remembrance that "the season of Advent is a time when the miraculous hope of incarnation reigns.

"Let us open our hearts and minds and spirits to the astounding message carried by the Word becoming Flesh.  Let us know - really know  - that God knows the depths and details of our darkest fears and pains; that God not only knows these feelings, but also feels these feelings.

Ancient liturgies and religious art, such as this mother-of-pearl cross inlay in St. James' Armenian Orthodox Cathedral in Jerusalem's Old City, are reminders of the continuous presence of Armenian Christians in the Holy Land since the fourth century.
"Let us remember that the most hopeless, unlikely situation - a humble birth in a lowly stable, for example - can be the context of miracle.

"And let us pray that the Prince of Peace would bring much-needed succor to this land at this most unlikely time."

One thing the couple brings back with them - a documentary that they hope will help American Christians understand more about the conflict and its consequences.

These are messages from Palestinian Christians to their Christian brothers and sisters in America: