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Trump's Jerusalem Decision Cast A Cloud Over Bethlehem's Holiday Season

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And we start this hour at the place where the Christmas story began. According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Today, Bethlehem is a bustling city of Palestinian Christians and Muslims in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is barely a half an hour down the road from Jerusalem. And President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while Palestinians still seek part of it for their capital, cast a cloud over Bethlehem's holiday season. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: On Christmas Eve, a trumpeter from Iowa played Christmas carols. He stood in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional spot of Jesus' birth. But it's been a bitter time here. There are political banners in the square. One reads - #handsoffjerusalem. A few days ago, a young Palestinian selling corn out of a cart took out his phone and played a song against America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC PLAYED FROM CELL PHONE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: There were Palestinian clashes with Israeli troops since Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It hurt tourism in Bethlehem in the weeks before Christmas. Olive wood craftsman Jack Issa Giacaman lost business, but he's more angry about Trump's announcement.

JACK ISSA GIACAMAN: What do you mean by Jerusalem is the capital of Israel? And you want Israel to be Jewish, that we don't exist anymore. You are telling us leave the country.

ESTRIN: Both Palestinians and Israelis have long ties to the city and seek to have it recognized as their capital. U.S. evangelical Christians celebrated Trump's declaration as a fulfillment of biblical scripture, that God promised the promised land to the people of Israel. So what does that mean for Arab Christians who have lived here for ages? It's a question Palestinian pastor Munther Isaac asks. He's with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and he preaches a different theology to his congregation in Bethlehem.

MUNTHER ISAAC: We try to comfort our - the people to see the bigger picture, to remember that God is still in control and that what Jesus said might be true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It's the meek who inherited the land, not the powerful, not the ones with wealth or not the ones who claim they have divine right.

ESTRIN: Reverend Isaac admits This message is a hard sell to young people in his congregation. He says many of them don't think the Israeli occupation of the West Bank will ever end.

ISAAC: Almost every week, I talk to a young family that wants to leave. It's very frustrating. This is one of my biggest pains as a pastor is seeing another family pack and leave looking for a better future.

ESTRIN: Trump's announcement made a lot of Palestinian Christians think again about whether they should stay here. A recent poll found nearly a quarter of Palestinian Christians surveyed had a relative who left this year. Muslims have long outnumbered Christians in Jesus' birthplace. Giacaman, the Christian craftsman, thinks fundamentalism is on the rise among his Muslim neighbors.

GIACAMAN: Because the peace process that the - our leadership took is failure. So where are the other direction? The fundamental people is getting - growing more and more.

ESTRIN: The Trump administration has promised to present a peace proposal, but the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, gave his Christmas message saying he wouldn't accept any peace proposal from Trump now. This Christmas, Palestinians face uncertainty about what comes next. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Bethlehem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.