An open letter to Barack Obama: You are welcome in Bethlehem

Mr. President, you are welcome in Bethlehem in occupied Palestine, with open arms, in the hope that you are devoted to justice and a positive peace.

By Antwan I. Saca

An open letter to Barack Obama: You are welcome in Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Photo: Michael Omer-Man)

BETHLEHEM – Just like the many other visitors that we receive here in this land, we would do our best to overwhelm you with our cultural hospitality and traditions. Mr. President, I would seize this opportunity to not only welcome you to visit Bethlehem, but also to welcome all U.S. citizens to visit my small city.

I invite you, Mr. President, to be in my city and among the nation that has a dream of liberty; a dream that goes in rhythm with all nations’ right of self-determination. We have embraced what all nations alike pursue: democracy, human development and security. We have tumbled through our pursuits and have made mistakes, but just like all humans and as part of human nature, we slip. We have built, learned, developed and made our existence noticeable for all nations.

Mr. President, I hope that in your visit you not only enjoy the blessings of the Holy Land, but are encouraged to return and experience this city to its fullest. After you complete your presidency you will be able to visit without a big security escort and you will enjoy wandering the old streets and spending time in the old city of Bethlehem, when you come back with your family.

Mr. President, our generation reads and learns about the legacy of 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and his great success in bringing change and hope through his struggle to achieve the 13th amendment: the amendment that brought an end to slavery in the United States of America; the amendment which served as a platform for justice in the U.S. for all men and women alike, despite the labels of difference we humans have created. Justice for all humans alike is something I live in hope to witness some day in my lifetime, once we are no longer occupied by the Israeli military.

Mr. President, I do not write to draw you a picture of what life here is like or of the geopolitical situation. I will not write to you about my personal opinion of the political and peace process deadlocks, nor will I try to explain the deteriorating levels of human security we witness in our lives. Not because all of this is not important, but because I’m sure you know it all by now.

Mr. President, our threatened Catholic monastery and winery of Cremisan is only a 10 minute drive away from the Nativity Church, which you will be visiting. It is a place my family, like many other families, used to go for “family walks.” Mr. President, I invite you to visit the monastery and winery when you are in Bethlehem, where some of us will be praying in a demonstration to save our last open community green space in Bethlehem. Visit it not because it is nice, but in order to see it before it no longer exists as it is today with its natural beauty and its connection to the historic community. The Israeli segregation wall will soon destroy it and separate it from us.

Mr. President you are welcome to visit my city and take photos of every landscape you might encounter, whether it’s a church, mosque, olive trees, refugee camps, or the cement segregation wall at the entrance to Bethlehem. You will not, however, encounter the wall or the military checkpoint, which segregate me and my community from our holy sites in Jerusalem, since you will visit be flying in by helicopter. Don’t worry, though, we can send you photos of it if you wish.

An open letter to Barack Obama: You are welcome in Bethlehem
Palestinians wait to get through at checkpoint at the separation wall in Bethlehem [file photo], (Photo:
My city welcomes you and this is why I’m writing. You are welcome as a guest and as a friend of the people, since you are one of the nation that supported justice and lauded Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

You are welcome as one of the nation that follows in his footsteps and celebrates his memory, ideology and spirit. He who expressed in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail‘ his despair and rejection of a silent moderate audience, saying:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

In that spirit of leadership, we look to you, Mr. President. If you support justice and a positive peace, I call on you not to be of those who prefers “order” and the “absence of tension,” rather be of the blessed who are the peacemakers. You are welcome to visit the Church of the Nativity and every corner of this historical city, every street and every house. It is after all the birthplace of Jesus Christ, whose footsteps we follow in our search for peace.

Antwan I. Saca is the Advocacy Officer at the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ). He previously worked at the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), is an advocate of Palestinian rights and is active in the Palestinian civil society movement for peace.