Hussein El Abed leans against a stonewall on the side of a narrow dirt
road. The sun is just beginning to set. He waits.
Unlike Christians around the world, this 54-year-old Palestinian
shepherd in Bethlehem is not waiting for Christmas Eve to begin. When the sun
sets, Hussein and more than 1.2 billion fellow Muslims worldwide will sit down
to a meal that breaks their sunrise-to-sunset Ramadan fast.
As evening approaches, not a single star will be visible in
the mostly cloudy sky, certainly not like the one that guided the shepherds
2,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, would-be wise men can follow a modern-day light
source – car lights – to Manger Square, the traditional site for Jesus’
Each year, nearly 15,000 tourists – equal to almost a
third of Bethlehem’s population – flood the small, not-as-sleepy-as-one-might-expect
West Bank town to celebrate Christmas.
But most of the Christians making their way to Manger Square
will be coming from somewhere besides Bethlehem. In recent years, Muslims have
become the majority in this small town known worldwide as the birthplace of
Southern Baptist representatives throughout the Middle East
are earnestly trying to reach Palestinians like Hussein.
“It’s a God-sized task,” says Mike Hurst, a
Southern Baptist representative working with Palestinians in a country near
Israel. “We have no idea how he will choose to work.”
One hopeful sign for the effort rests in the legendary hospitality
“The hospitality has always given me hope,” Sherrie
Hurst explains. “Because if they invite me into their homes, they might
invite Christ into their hearts.”
Before recent Israeli-Palestinian conflicts escalated tensions,
Christians and Muslims peacefully coexisted in the area for centuries.
“We’ve lived together as neighbors for generations,”
says Achmud Hammeeda, a shepherd who lives in an area called Beth Tamaar, just
nine miles from Bethlehem. “We’ve lived together very peacefully.”
However, for Hussein, the more important image of peace this
Christmas Eve is between him and his sheep. Hussein puts his fingers to his
lips and makes a high-pitched sound. Like a heavenly Christmas choir, his sheep
bleat a collective “baaaah” in response to the sound.
“See, I told you the sheep know my voice,” Hussein
says with a laugh.
Not only do the sheep know the shepherd, but the shepherd knows
the sheep. Although he does not use human names, Hussein does name them after
prominent characteristics, such as “Black Face.” In a way, Hussein
says he sees them as part of his family.
“We do much more to harm sheep than they harm us,”
the modern-day shepherd explains.
Unlike Christmas cards showing shepherds in fields, letting
their sheep graze on rich, green pastures, Bethlehem’s lack of water in
recent times has reduced the landscape to rocks and dirt.
Sometime around March, as grass starts reappearing, sheep (and
all of the goats mysteriously left out of traditional nativity set) will reappear
on the countryside. However, until then, many of the sheep will have to be content
with a diet of barley feed in their pens.
Today, few shepherds in the Middle East actually make their
living exclusively from shepherding. For instance, Achmud Hammeeda feeds his
13 children by building bricks for the construction trade.
His family originally were Bedouins and has raised sheep for
generations. His father and several brothers all live within close proximity.
Many evenings are spent on Achmud’s porch chatting about daily events and
telling stories – especially during the month of Ramadan.
For many Muslims, the annual holiday is a time to get together
with relatives and catch up on the year’s activities. Spiritually, it is
a time for prayer, reflection and generosity, Muslim tradition holds.
The month is concluded with an evening called the Night of
Power, when Muslims believe they have direct access to God as “the heavens
Southern Baptists see the time as a crucial one to pray for
Muslims. For several years, they have promoted 30 days of prayer for Muslims
during the annual Ramadan season.
“Most people say they are closer to God during this time,”
Achmud says of the Muslim holiday. “But I am not sure.”
Southern Baptists pray that individuals would be sure –
and it would be Jesus to whom they would draw close. (BP)
(Mike and Sherrie Hurst are pseudonyms used to protect the identity of workers
in a sensitive area. Learn more of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan atwww.imb.org/TConline/200012/ramada