Our group was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in the holy land.  We spent the first few days in Bethlehem and then traveled to Jerusalem.  I have a lot of pictures and stories to share, so I have tried to set up this page as a photo journal of the trip.  For quicker load times, I divided the photos into several pages.  Email me if you have questions.
Dec. 21-23  Dec. 24-25  Dec. 26  Dec. 27-28

Our trip began at 11 PM on December 21 when ten of us left to go to the bus station.
Our trip got off to a troubled start when our van showed up late, but we still left Dawson Hall on time to catch the bus and arrived in Taba very early the next morning.  You might remember Taba from the terrorist bombings at the Taba Hilton a couple months ago and we were able to see the hotel, which is being repaired.  From Taba, it was a 15 minute walk to the Israeli border at Eliat, where we were questioned and searched, but granted entry into Israel without too much trouble, considering how tight security is right now!
 Taba Hilton (left)
The Israeli border (above)
Waiting by the ocean for a taxi (right)
By the time we arrived in Bethlehem, it was 4 PM and we had spent 17 hours on four buses and a taxi, not to mention quite a bit of walking!  We went to the Casa Nova guest house, attached to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, took a nap, did a little exploring, and had a very late dinner before bedtime.

Christmas tree in the Casa Nova lobby (left) 

The next day, December 23, we started being tourists in the morning with a tour of Shepherd's field, where the angels appeared to the shepherds to tell them about the  birth of Christ.  Today it isn't much of a field, but a series of caves and ruins and a small chapel overlooking the hills of Bethlehem.
The chapel at Shepherds' field

Images painted on the walls (right & left)
Matt playing (lower left)
Chapel alter (lower center)
View of Bethlehem
 (lower right)

There was a cave under part of the ruins at Shepherd's field and, of course, I can't resist the temptation to crawl into dark, underground spaces.
For me, one of the highlights of our time in Bethlehem (and a most eye-opening experience) was a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp.  The camp is half a square kilometer and is home to about 11,000 Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, whose land and homes have been destroyed or confiscated for Israeli settlements.  The images below are painted on the walls in a stairwell of one of the buildings and depict the Palestinians struggle to retain their rights and to live peacefully amidst the conflict that surrounds them.
A poem written by a Palestinian boy and painted on the wall with the murals:

If I could change all the world
I'd dismantle all the bombs
I'd feed all the hungry
I'd shelter all the homeless
I'd make all people free
I can't dismantle all the bombs
I can't feed all the hungry
I can't shelter all the homeless
I can't make all the people free
I can't because there is only one of me
When I have grown and I am strong I will
find many more of me
We will dismantle all the bombs
We will feed the hungry
We will shelter all the homeless
We will make all the people free
We will change the world
Me and my friends together, together at last

~Jojo, age 11 (killed at age 23)

Our guide told us the building to the left had been bombed two weeks before our visit by Israeli police, who showed up at 2 AM, giving all the residents 10 minutes to leave their homes.  The blast destroyed the home of a Palestinian man who had been previously arrested.  The guide believed the Red Cross tent (far left) across the street was sheltering his family following the loss of their home.  The adjacent homes and a preschool were also damaged. 
This refugee camp is extremely overcrowded and 60% of the residents are children, most of whom were born in the camp and have never known any other reality.  Palestinians in Bethlehem are not allowed to leave the city without a special permit, so for most people, there are few alternatives to this life.
One of our friends from the seminary in Cairo is Palestinian and her family was kind enough to invite us to their home in Beit Jalla later in the afternoon.  They haven't seen their daughter in three years because she cannot return to Palestine until she finishes school.  The next door neighbor's daughter and her rabbit entertained us.
Later that night, we went to a great concert at the Lutheran church before heading back to the Casa Nova.

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