Vatican Gives Christmas Present to Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem: A Piece of the Manger

The Vatican is transporting pieces of wood to Bethlehem that are claimed to be from the manger that held Jesus when he was born. Citing Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, WAFA News reported last Friday that the permanent transfer of the relic came as a result of a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Francis.  Salman said the relics were taken from Bethlehem around 1,000 years ago, and are now likely to be placed inside Saint Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, the reputed site of Jesus’s birth. The relics are expected to be displayed in ceremonies in Jerusalem on Friday and will arrive in Bethlehem on Saturday, the day the Palestinian town traditionally lights its Manger Square Christmas tree.

Old City of Bethlehem by Night (Photo: Berthold Werner)

The relic, known as the Holy Crib, was donated by St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem to Pope Theodore I (642-649 CE). It is currently in Rome stored and displayed in an ornate container constructed by Virginio Vespignani in the mid 19th century. It was displayed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

“It is a historic move. It returns to its original place, and it will be a factor of attraction to believers from inside Palestine and to tourists from all over the world,” Amira Hanania, a member of Abbas’s Higher Committee of Churches Affairs, said to the press. “To celebrate Christmas with the presence of part of the manger in which Jesus Christ was born will be a magnificent and huge event.”

The Palestinian Authority, currently charged with administering the city, hopes the appearance of the relic will generate an uptick in Christian tourism. The city suffers from twenty percent unemployment and seasonal tourism is a major part of its income. Tourism has been on the decline, mirroring the decline in the Christian population of the city. Ironically, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem blames the “Israeli occupation.” When the city was under Israeli rule in the 1950’s, Christians represented 80 percent of the population. Christians are currently 12 percent of Bethlehem’s population. It should be noted that Israel is the only country in the region in which Christian populations are growing. In every other country in the region, Christians are the focus of Muslim persecution.

The gesture by the Vatican raises the question of many other artifacts from the holy land possessed by the Vatican and museums around the world that originated in Jerusalem.