(CNSNews.com) – Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted Sunday that she and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would someday “see Bethlehem and InshAllah [Allah willing] it will be free when we do.”
Omar retweeted her colleague’s post, and added the words, “One day very soon.”
Tlaib’s post came after a Christian organization in Bethlehem posted a message bemoaning the fact that the two Muslim congresswomen would not be visiting the area as hoped.
“Bethlehem was looking forward to welcoming [Tlaib] and [Omar] this weekend,” read the tweet posted on the account of “Christ at the Checkpoint," a group that addresses "the injustices that have taken place in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine."
“We were disappointed to learn that their entries were refused by the powers that control our borders; an issue over which we have no sovereignty or say.”
“Christ at the Checkpoint” posted a photo of what appeared to be printed posters welcoming Tlaib and Omar to “Bethlehem, Palestine.”
“Christ at the Checkpoint” hosts biannual conferences, usually in Bethlehem, designed to weaken support for Israel among Christians, especially pro-Israel evangelicals in the U.S. The events are characterized by speakers who oppose Christian Zionism and espouse “replacement theology,” the belief that the church has replaced Israel in God’s purposes for the world.
The Israeli government last week barred Tlaib and Omar from visiting the country, based on their support for the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also charged that their proposed itinerary made clear their “sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy.”
(Israel’s interior ministry then approved a request by Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, to pay a humanitarian visit to her 90-year-old grandmother, who lives in a village west of Ramallah, but Tlaib chose not to do so.)
Despite Tlaib’s comment that Bethlehem one day “will be free,” the town has been administered by the Palestinian Authority since late 1995, when Israel withdrew from a number of major populations centers in the territories disputed between Israel and the Palestinians, in line with the Oslo interim peace accords.
Responding to Tlaib’s tweet, Jonathan Elkhoury, a Lebanese Christian who lives in Israel, tweeted, “Free from the Palestinian Authority? Because Bethlehem is 100% under the PA from 1996.”
Elkhoury also drew attention to the decline of the Christian population of Bethlehem since the town was taken over by the P.A.
The Christian population of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, has dropped from around 60 percent in 1990 to about 15-20 percent today, a phenomenon some blame on Israel’s construction, beginning in mid-2002, of a security barrier that separates Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem.
Others note that the recorded decline of Christian numbers in Bethlehem started well before the building of the security barrier, and attribute the emigration to factors including P.A. harassment, rising Islamic radicalism and religious intolerance.
(Israel built the security barrier in a bid to deter suicide bombings and other terror attacks that had cost hundreds of Israeli lives since the outbreak of the “second intifada” 20 months earlier.)
In the run-up to Israel’s handover of Bethlehem to Yasser Arafat’s P.A. in 1995, then-mayor Elias Freij, an Orthodox Christian, petitioned the Israeli government not to transfer Bethlehem, saying it would become a town of churches but no Christians.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly agreed to postpone the move if Freij obtained the written support of all Christian communities in Bethlehem, but Freij could not and the handover went ahead.
Bethlehem is important to Christians because of Jesus’ birth there, but it also holds significance for Jews as the home city of King David.
King David’s Bethlehem origins were the reason Jesus was born there: According to the New Testament Joseph was a direct descendant of David, and traveled to Bethlehem with Mary because the Roman emperor ordered all citizens to go to their place of lineage to be registered for a census. Mary gave birth while there.
Bethlehem is also the burial place of Rachel, the wife of the biblical patriarch Jacob.