Getting to Bethlehem from Jerusalem is extremely easy. It is just a 3 Shekel minibus ride from Damascus Gate to the Bethlehem checkpoint, which you should be able to cross with ease. The checkpoint itself is an interesting spot. While not the largest or strictest of checkpoints, the Bethlehem checkpoint will still give you a glimpse as to what the Palestinians who travel the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem every day have to deal with. A Palestinian man in front of us who was going to the hospital was denied access to Bethlehem because he only had an ID card and not a passport. You will experience no such difficulties though and will find the IDF guards extremely friendly and you may even get a nice photo with them.
Once you cross the checkpoint, it will be another 3 Shekels to get into central Bethlehem and to the Church. Upon arriving at the Church, I highly suggest you get one of the official guides outside. I am not usually one for getting official guided tours, especially at religious sights, but the tours there are extremely interesting as the guide will not only tell you about the history of the Church and the significance of the various shrines, but he will also give you detailed descriptions of the siege that occurred in the Church in 2002 when over 100 Palestinians locked themselves in the Church and were besieged by the Israeli military. Your guide will tell you all about the siege (filled with a good bit of propaganda that you will have to sift through), show you the bullet holes from Israeli snipers, as well as other interesting places, such as where the Israeli military tried to blow open the doors to the church. For 3 Shekels each, the tour is worth it, even though you will most surely be dragged into a nearby souvenir shop afterwards.
The church itself is rather simple. To enter,you must duck down and enter through a small wooden passageway, which opens up to a plain stone columned hallway lined with sensors dangling from the ceiling. At the end of this hallway is an ornate gold and silver altar with stairs that lead down behind it to the place of Jesus’ birth. It is a small room with a small area, which looks rather like a fireplace, marking the spot of the Nativity. To the right,more stairs lead to another room in which a nun sits with her head bowed and a rosary running through her fingers all day long. For both its religious importance as well as its being the stage upon which the siege of 2002 was acted out, the Church of the Nativity is an unforgettable visit.
May 8, 2003
From journal Jerusalem and the West Bank