On Christmas 2005, there will be at least one bright star shining in Bethlehem. Although today's Bethlehem is largely Muslim-dominated, like the star that shone in the sky 2000 years ago, this star still points wanderers to Jesus.
Times are tough for those living in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. With unemployment at a whopping 76 percent, the necessity of passing through checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel, and many workers denied access to jobs in Israel; many residents feel a sense of despair.
However, like the Church down through the ages, Palestinian Christians have found that in this dark time the Light of Jesus is more attractive than ever to those wandering in darkness.
"In difficult times, some people will curse God. Some will say, 'So what!' and give up. And some will seek God, some in mosques and some in the churches. But at this time, God has put us (Christians) in the way of many who are seeking," said Reverend Nihad Salman, pastor of Emmanuel Church in Bethlehem. "God is bringing people to us and we are making ourselves available by many means in this society."
One way is with a newly opened Christian bookstore on Manger Square, the only Christian bookstore in the entire West Bank. At a time when the traditional business of Bethlehem - tourism - is slim and many storefronts are closed, Emmanuel Church's attractive bookstore is well-stocked with brightly colored books, booklets, and tracts in Arabic with the bindings opening from left to right. They also offer a selection of CD's and the prerequisite olive wood figurines.
Said Rev. Salman: "The bookshop opened April 2005 and been a blessing on the area. Many are testifying and saying, 'Thank you for the light you are shining our way.' The bookstore cost a lot to start, but many were seeking truth and are still seeking. Now they can find it."
Innovative outreach characterizes Salman's church, perhaps because the odds are so heavily stacked against the Palestinian believers; or perhaps because they've operated for so long under threats of all sorts and with little encouragement or support from the western church.
However, isolation hasn't dampened their zeal or effectiveness. Salman's congregation now numbers over 200 - average by western standards but astronomical by eastern. The congregation also supports 35 of its young people who minister to recent immigrants in Brazil, Rwanda, Ghana, Spain, and South Africa. Twelve of the church's young people are in Bible College, and in the last two years, Salman's congregation has planted three churches in Middle Eastern locations.
For Salman, however, this is only the beginning of what he sees God wants to do through the Palestinian church. "In 2006, we want to have another outreach ministry," he said, although because of community pressures, he has to be discrete about his plans.
However, the Christmas season gives Immanuel Church and other Bethlehem evangelical churches and organizations opportunities to band together and make numerous public presentations of the Gospel for the community via the singing of carols, plays, handing out of Bibles and sweets, and a 1000+-celebrant banquet.
"We use this time to speak and celebrate with surprises," said Salman.
But through the festivities, the shining star of hope in Christ will still gleam brightly for those in great darkness. "We will be trying to tell the people through the celebration that God will takes us all through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Most in the Bethlehem area have been hit and it makes life very difficult," said Salman.
Salman asks that brothers and sisters in Christ encourage the Palestinian Christians by visiting West Bank churches to build bridges of understanding. He also asks that fellow believers begin praying for the Palestinian church. "If the church starts praying, the Lord starts leading. The Lord starts putting ideas on the heart."