Mayor of Bethlehem appeals for support for his 'prison town'

 Dr Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem gave the following address in London yesterday, at the launch of the Bethlehem passport campaign. I am addressing this press conference today on a matter of international importance. My city - Bethlehem - is in a state of emergency and may soon be lost to the world. This, I hope you will agree, will have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East. It would have far wider reaching implications not only for Christianity world-wide but also to the relationship between the Christian countries and all other nations. My city is dying because it is imprisoned. A combination of walls and fences completely surround the urban core of the Bethlehem region, leaving only two gates to the outside world. It is not, as the Israelis would claim, a security barrier. In the first instance, it does not separate a Palestinian population from an Israeli population. Rather, it cuts through villages within the Bethlehem area, separating Palestinians from Palestinians. It even cuts through a cemetery, separating our dead from each other. In a strict and literal sense, it is a ghetto wall, and Bethlehem is a prison town. We have reached a final, tragic level of absurdity that a nation created to free the Jews from captivity has built a prison for Christians and Muslims. Let me say this. It is the multi-faith character of the city that makes it a working model for local democracy in the Middle East. My job of Mayor is to make sure the process works, that it is accountable and that it involves all sections of our community. But our democratic traditions are deep-rooted: they can be seen in our political parties, and in the way we have run and continue to run our civic bodies, our schools, colleges and neighbourhoods. It is the home-grown nature of our democracy that makes Bethlehem so valuable: we are a bastion of multi-faith, multi-party politics in the Middle East. If Bethlehem dies, one of the brightest hopes for a democratic Middle East dies with it. The ghettoisation of Bethlehem threatens this democracy because it threatens our city as a whole. The loss of agricultural space destroys the villages, raises unemployment and forces up food prices. Tourism is down ninety per cent on 2000, bringing an end to the city's main industry. The severance of ethlehem from Jerusalem destroys the links between local churches and Cathedrals, schools and universities, and producers and markets. In this climate, Bethlehem has seen a precipitous drop in its population. This has been most notable in the Christian community: four hundred Christian families have left Bethlehem since the year 2000. Traditionally, Bethlehem's Christian community has been the most affluent, as it was better-placed to benefit from tourism. The Christians have also enjoyed stronger links with the west, often as a result of being educated abroad. However, I come with a message of hope. I am declaring our city open. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is 9th November and we are certain that the wall around our city will also fall. Until that day comes, we need to find a new energy within ourselves, to transcend our ghetto and connect the world: to act as though the wall does not exist. That is why we have taken the unprecedented step of launching a Bethlehem Passport. The passport is a way to ask people to step up to the plate. If you invest in Bethlehem, bring projects to the city or come and live among us, you can also become a Bethlehemite. We can promise that our home is your home. For more information see: http://www.openbethlehem.org