BETHLEHEM—U.S. President Joe Biden visited the Nativity Church last Friday during his trip to Bethlehem where he was greeted by Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and priests from the three Christian denominations represented in the church.

In an exclusive interview, Father Issa Thaljieh of Nativity Church told Christian journalist Paul Calvert that “when any president comes to Bethlehem – and especially to the Nativity Church where Jesus was born – it’s really exciting.”

Thaljieh said it also important for the Christian community in Bethlehem to show Biden what it’s like to live as a Christian in the Palestinian Authority and for him to understand the unique challenges that Christians face in the region.

“As a Christian Palestinian priest from Bethlehem, we always have hope. So without hope, we are not alive. So that’s why I keep hope. I keep praying for God to turn out this [Biden] visit as something good, something maybe to bring freedom for Palestinian justice, maybe to live with dignity.”

The general public was not allowed to go into the church during Biden’s visit, however, as a member of the clergy, Thaljieh was able to see the president and view the central activities. Biden was met by patriarchs of the three denominations represented in the church: Armenian, Greek and Orthodox Catholics. 

Israel’s Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov was also present in Bethlehem, accompanying Biden as he learned about the construction and restoration of the popular Nativity Church, one of the oldest working churches in existence today, and believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

“He was looking in all the mosaics, the windows, maybe the roof and everything, even small details…He started from the Greek Orthodox part and then he went down to the grotto where Jesus was born, in the cave where the star is.”

“[Biden] went down to the grotto as maybe to light a candle to pray inside the grotto where Jesus was born. …He saw the star where Jesus was born and also the manger,” Thaljieh continued.

According to Thaljieh, Biden – himself a member of the Catholic Church – prayed, shook hands with the church bishop and made the sign of the cross.

“It was a good step to show that he’s concerned about the Nativity Church. It’s like a pilgrim side, which all people come from all over the world… to come to Bethlehem and to receive or to see or to touch and to have blessing from the church where Jesus was born,” explained Thaljieh.

Father Issa Thaljieh (Photo: Courtesy)

While at Nativity Church, the children sang songs of worship in Arabic and Biden had an opportunity to see the traditional dresses worn by the female parishioners.

All of this is important, Father Thaljieh said, for Biden to know there are Palestinian Christians who live in Bethlehem because “they are the living stones.”

“If there are no Christian people serving or praying in the Church of the Nativity, it will be only a church. Without…it’s not alive, you know, it’s just stones. And that’s why I call them the living stones.”

According to reports, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem told the American president that extremist Jews are threatening “the main way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” by “altering the historic, demographic and geographic nature and validity of the site and terminate the Christian presence in the city.”

“It is saddening that these groups are supported, in part, by right-wing figures in Israel’s political sphere. They are, together, trying to disrupt the longtime status quo in the city,” the letter said according to Channel 12 News.

Thaljieh did not get a chance to speak with the U.S. president during his church visit. However, if given the opportunity, he would have raised several issues.

One, he said, would be the importance of giving “freedom, to give peace… for the land of peace. Because, you know, when Jesus was born here, he tried to send a message of peace and love. And this is what exactly we’re trying to send these messages to all over the world.”

He added that Biden, now that he has visited Bethlehem, should try to be a peacemaker.

“It says in the Bible, blessed are the peacemakers; that they are doing the peace all around the world,” he said.

Thaljieh has been with the Nativity Church for 10 years and has seen a fair share of famous people and celebrities walk through its religious building.

“I was here when Obama came and also when Trump came. But Trump … he didn’t come to the Church of the Nativity, but only around the church,” he said.

Thaljieh said that Biden’s trip to Israel and the region represents hope for the future.

“And this is how I always keep praying in my heart and in the church and in daily our services prayers. This is actually we’re talking about – this thing or we’re praying about this peace – because, since I was born till now, I’m hearing about peace. And we’re not seeing peace exactly. We’re hearing about justice. But we don’t feel justice or dignity or freedom or any of these kinds of things.”

Thaljieh said that his prayer for the outcome of Biden’s trip is that it will ultimately “bring love, peace, joy, dignity, justice to the Palestinian people.”

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