“I met Bella, a Jewish woman, at a Focolare centre in Jerusalem. I had told her the story about my husband in an Israeli jail where he was tortured. She listened to me, although I noted a certain inner conflict. She was in front of a crossroads: whether to be an Israeli and therefore reject everything I was saying, or to feel compassionate toward me. At first she wasn’t able to accept me and went back to the room where we had met. I followed her and told her I was sorry that I had upset her. Bella explained to me that it wasn’t my fault, but that of the system. Then I asked if we could begin again, and she was touched. That’s how our friendship was born. A wall separates my city of Bethlehem from her city of Jerusalem, but there are no longer walls between the two of us. I pray that many Israeli can look at our friendship. Bella lives the spirit of the Focolare in the sense that we’re all children of God, and it’s only love and compassion that leads us to live together with one another. We human beings have built a wall around Bethlehem, but you cannot build anything alone. God gave us the freedom to build it, or to tear it down within us as well.”
This is how Vera Baboun, the first Catholic woman mayor of Bethlehem responded to the question of whether it was possible to establish true friendship between Palestinians and Israeli. The occasion of the meeting was the7th Chiara Lubich, Manfredonia City For Universal Brotherhood Award” in March 2016.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian city located in the West Bank. It has a population of 40,000 people, of which 28% are Christian and 72% Muslim. It is the city where Jesus was born, some 10 km south of Jerusalem. The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world. Nevertheless, “the wall also conditions our faith, because we were accustomed to visiting the original sites of Jesus’s life from the time we were children. There is a whole generation of young Palestinians that has never prayed at the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem,” said Vera Baboun. “We’re the Nativity capital of the world. We celebrate and offer a message of peace to the world, while peace is precisely what is missing in Bethlehem. After the 40% rate of cancellations this year we decided with the City Council to lower taxes on the tourist industry by 80%. We did it to offer them support even though it signifies a depletion of resources for the Municipality. But who supports us? Who supports our dual identity: our universal Christian identity and our Palestinian identity?
But what makes you do it? “Only God’s love. I feel it very strongly. I don’t care at all about the power, the fame. Being mayor is a burden for me that costs me much. After the death of my husband and after having worked my whole life in education, I decided to take my husband’s place because he was involved politically in working for the liberation of Palestine.”
You have often declared: “Will the world ever be able to live in peace as long as the city of peace is walled up?” “As long as the city of Bethlehem is walled up, there will be a wall around peace. We’re under siege. As for the world, it would be better to work at liberating peace not only for Bethlehem, but for our own sake to free ourselves from the way of evil, from using religion as a mask to cover up evil and war.”