Meeting the mayor of Bethlehem at Christmas

Meeting the mayor of Bethlehem at Christmas
5 min read
21 December, 2016
It's the most wonderful time of the year, and the woman in charge of the little town where it all began is busy as ever.
Bethlehem's mayor says she was inspired by Pope Francis [Getty]

Vera Baboun, the energetic mayor of Bethlehem, credits Pope Francis with the idea for her Christmas message this year.

"I kept on thinking 'what I should say?' and I remembered the emphasis the Holy Father had regarding children, and I comibined that with this year's Catholic Church theme of mercy."

During a visit to Bethlehem in 2014, Pope Francis said that children were "a diagnostic sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society and the entire world, wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human".

In her Christmas message, Baboun combined the two themes:

"It all began in Bethlehem, where the crib designates mercy and life. From that humble cradle, God's mercy emerged to humanity to give hope and serenity to those who need it, so that mercy would indeed be the true meaning of Christmas."

Baboun also drew from the message of the angels to the shepherds at night some two thousand years ago.

The Bible tells us that the angels calmed the fears of the shepherds while delivering a message of peace and goodwill. This is the message we need at Christmas - especially in Bethlehem and the Middle East

"The Bible tells us that the angels calmed the fears of the shepherds while delivering a message of peace and goodwill," she said. "This is the message we need at Christmas - especially in Bethlehem and the Middle East."

Vera Baboun, a former university professor and student dean, rose to prominence in 2012 when she was elected as the first female mayor of the Palestinian city where Jesus was born. She has worked tirelessly to give the city a new look and to resolve many of the town's problems.

As a result, Baboun was proud to say that tourism has been boosted in Bethlehem this season. "Hotels are at 83 percent occupancy, and, in general, all tourism-related business has been up this year," she said. 

"Business in October and November usually amount to the biggest part of the year's work," she added.

Read more: Christmas comes three times a year in Bethlehem

The mayor of Bethlehem was supposed to be relaxing this Christmas season, having originally decided not to run for re-election during the local elections planned for last September.

"When elections were approaching we were asked to submit our resignation if we were planning to run for office; I decided that I wanted to continue to work on the city's master plan and on hosting the diaspora conference. So I didn't resign." 

A smart move - elections were postponed at the last minute, allowing Baboun to continue occupying the municipal office overlooking Manger Square.

"I am happy that I was able to submit to the regional board a new zoning plan - the first one since 1958."

Twelve kids were involved in the Christmas tree lighting ceremonies and we have organised a special parade for children

Baboun says that the new plan will allow more land to be available for use by the city.

As preparations get underway for this year's Christmas celebrations, Baboun decided to give prominence to children in all the Christmas activities. "I tried to make children the heroes of this year’s Christmas activities. Twelve kids were involved in the Christmas tree lighting ceremonies and we have organised a special parade for children. We are also holding a Christmas dance - and Santa gave children holiday gifts."

Christmas preparations are underway
at the Church of the Nativity [Getty]

As mayor of Bethlehem, Baboun serves on the presidential committee for the restoration of the Church of Nativity.

"I am excited about the restoration work," she said enthusiastically. "We have been able to uncover a seventh angel." The restoration work, initiated by a million dollar donation from President Abbas' office is being performed by a joint Italian-Palestinian company, whose work accords to the highest international standards - as the Church is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas regularly participates in the midnight mass in Bethlehem's Church of Nativity. Baboun says she convinced the president this year to hold a Christmas reception for the local community.

"I told him 'people want to meet you and talk to you', so he agreed and since last year we organised a reception in which some 250 people from Bethlehem are invited and the president hosts the Christmas reception and has a chance to meet with the local dignitaries, and business people."

The mayor's duties also include the welcoming of church leaders on Christmas Eve. Baboun is proud of her changes to make the Manger Square reception more organised and less hectic.

"Two years ago we had a problem with the crowds and the journalists and the Church leaders, so I went to the different churches and convinced them that we needed to make changes and they agreed. Now the press has their own roped area for which they can do their work, the public can watch the ceremonies and we are no longer witnessing the crowding and the pushing which we had to suffer through in previous years".

Christmas is celebrated three times each year in Bethlehem and Vera Baboun will be front and centre in all Church-related activities - the midnight mass, Christmas celebrations, receptions, choir recitals, and more.

At each event, Baboun will remind all that the Christmas theme of this year is "Mercy" - since it is most needed for the Palestinian people, especially children who want to enjoy a life of freedom with peace and justice.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on @daoudkuttab