Bethlehem, Nazareth in Holy Battle

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BETHLEHEM: Israelis and Palestinians agree on very little, but they usually manage to leave Jesus out of it. No longer: Representatives of Nazareth and Bethlehem are at each other’s throats over which town has greater claim to be called the home of Christ.

“He is called Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of any other city,” says Nazareth mayor Ramiz Jaraisy. TIME correspondent and Bethlehem resident Jamil Hamad counters: “Bethlehem is the place Jesus was born. Not even the Vatican could compete with that.”

Both sides have a legitimate claim — Jesus was born in Bethlehem (now under Palestinian Authority control) but spent most of his life in Nazareth (which, despite being predominantly Arab, is part of Israel proper). The real issue as they jockey for position and investment is where the 2 million Christian pilgrims to the region each year — with 5 million expected in the millennial year — spend their money.

On a less town-proud note, Hamad sees the competition for pilgrim dollars as a major challenge for the Palestinian Authority: “You can see Jesus’ birthplace in two minutes. After that, you need to eat lunch or dinner, to relax or stay in a hotel — Bethlehem lacks these facilities, and we cannot attract tourists unless they are built.” In other words, 2,000 years after Christ’s birth, visitors to the town are still unlikely to find room at the inn.