Nativity scene now includes Israeli security barrier
Organizers say the purpose of the sets - made by Palestinian carpenters with olive wood from Bethlehem - is to draw attention to the security measures put in place by the Israeli government.
The network of walls and fences being built between Israeli and Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank runs along the perimeter of Bethlehem, dividing it from nearby Jerusalem. Travel in and out of the town is heavily restricted.
The nativity scenes are available in a small version, for around $30, and a larger set - "perfect for a church" - goes for around $115. The wall in the larger version is detachable, the Amos Trust says, to allow for the possibility the situation may change in the future.
Garth Hewitt, director of the Amos Trust, said Wednesday his group wants to use the wooden sets to make people aware of what is happening, including how the Christian population of Bethlehem is rapidly shrinking.
"We're worried about the entire community there," he said. "They're trapped behind the wall there. It's like a medieval siege."
Hewitt, an Anglican "honorary canon" and singer-songwriter, said proceeds from the sets will go directly to the Bethlehem tradesmen who have been economically hurt by the loss of outside visitors and tourists.
"In the old days, there would have been loads of pilgrims and they would have been able to raise money that way," he said. So far, the group has sold around 100 of the smaller sets and about 50 of the larger ones.
Critics of Israel frequently blame the Israeli government for the exodus of Christian Arabs from the PA areas. Some scholars attribute the shrinking Christian population to harassment and intimidation by Islamists, however.
Two pro-Israel Christian groups criticized the nativity sets.
"We are saddened by attempts to make one-sided political capital out of the Bethlehem story," Geoffrey Smith, director of the U.K. branch of Christian Friends of Israel, said Wednesday.
"Nobody wants a security barrier but so long as terrorists continue to threaten the lives of Jews and of Arabs in Israel, the people there have to defend themselves in ways that will stop the bombers."
He said more than 2,000 lives have been saved by the security barrier in the last five years.
Pamela Thomas, national director of the British branch of Bridges for Peace, agreed. "The wall is there to protect people from the suicide bombers that were coming in," she said.
Although far from common in Britain, nativity scenes occasionally have proved controversial in recent years.
Last year, the Israeli government protested after a Catholic Church in England replaced its usual nativity pageant with a 24-foot-high polystyrene replica of the security barrier.
Visitors reportedly were shown protest signs and what the parish priest called "stark photographs" of the situation in Bethlehem.
This year, the BBC has come under fire from some religious groups for a modernized version of the nativity story, which the public broadcaster will screen in a live show in Liverpool on December 16.
Mary and Joseph will be depicted as asylum seekers swept up during a crackdown on immigration, with the cast singing hits from the Beatles and other famous local pop bands.
Despite the complaints, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool James Jones supports the program, saying that it will cause the Christmas story to "echo through the streets of Liverpool”.’