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The Way to Bethlehem

By Sandra Scott

In 1997, I spent three weeks touring Israel with my husband, John, and our son, Jim. During breakfast on our last day, we agree it has been one of our very best vacations. We visited Caesarea, Haifa, Megidd, (Armageddon), Nazareth, and Jerusalem. We swam in the Sea of Galilee, soaked in the Dead Sea, and climbed the Masada before heading south to Eilat where we snorkeled in the Red Sea, and took a side trip to Petra, Jordan. We even slept in a Bedouin tent in the Negev Desert. Yes, it was a wonderful trip. We did it all… all except visit Bethlehem, one of the most important places in the world. Bethlehem was sealed off a few weeks before we arrived because of a bombing in a Jerusalem market.

Our plane is not scheduled to leave for several hours so we decide to see if the road is still closed. Just south of Jerusalem, all vehicles are directed to head back into the city. The soldier turns a deaf ear to our plea to be allowed through. Dejectedly, we return to the hotel where we visit a hotel shop and chat with the owner, lamenting our inability to visit Bethlehem. "I can tell you how to get there." He suggests two plans. With some trepidation we are back on the road to Bethlehem.

Once more we are in line at the checkpoint. Following Plan A, John, is his most businesslike voice, informs the guard, "We have an appointment in Manger Square at 10:00." The officer doesn't buy it. Not deterred for a second and, now determined to see this mission through, John pulls the car over, enters the guardhouse to present his request to the commanding officer. The answer remains firm, "The road to Bethlehem is closed."

So Plan B goes into effect. We head back toward Jerusalem and exit the stream of traffic at the next turn. For twenty minutes we bounce through the barren hills south of Jerusalem, not a vehicle in sight. We come to another checkpoint where the soldier informs us the road is closed.

John, with a sound of urgency, repeats, "We have an appointment in Manger Square." The soldier snaps, "I can not allow you to pass. Your safety can not be guaranteed." "I will take full responsibility," John remarks. "I can't permit it, but I can't stop you." John steps on the gas and we are beyond the checkpoint. For the next 10 minutes we ride in silence contemplating what we have done. There is no one else on the road; the treeless area is strewn with rocks and boulders. Jim breaks the silence, "If Christina Amanpour from CNN pops up from behind one of these rock piles with a microphone in her hand we're out of here. Agreed?"

By the time we reach the first intersection I want to turn back. One road is blocked with a two-foot pile of rubble and guarded by soldiers. I go into the small market on the corner to ask directions hoping I will be told it is impossible to get to Bethlehem. The clerk looks out the window, points to a white cab heading west, and says, "Quick, follow that cab."

Off we go after the cab. Shortly the cab stops at another roadblock. I am not having a warm fuzzy feeling about all of this, and Jim is in the backseat mumbling something about, "...other families go to Darien Lake and Disney World…." But, John knows our goal is in reach. He strikes a deal with the cab driver. For $20 Hamid will take us to Bethlehem.

"What about our car? It is not cover by insurance in Palestinian areas." "Not to worry," replies Hamid. He grabs a pizza box out of a nearby garbage pile, rips off the back, writes something in Arabic, and sticks it in our car window. "It says do not stone this car. It belongs to my friends." Off we go with Hamid. A ways down the road there is another roadblock so Hamid swerves right, drives off the road, weaves through an orchard, goes up a hill onto the road the other side of the roadblock, then up another hill, and we are in Manger Square by 10:00.

We enter the Church of the Nativity through the low doorway that insures everyone bows to enter with proper humility. Beneath the church, in the Grotto of the Nativity, a marble star, the Star of Bethlehem, marks the spot where Jesus was born. It is a solemn and awe-inspiring feeling to be in such a holy place.

Six hours later, on our flight home, we overhear two priests discussing their trip to Israel. "I wish I had been able to visit Bethlehem." "I know," the other replies, "I had a letter of passage from Pope John Paul and they still wouldn't let me through."

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