Bethlehem is a very special place in the eyes of Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. The modern city stretches out from the historic center in all directions. Today Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and has a population of about 22,000 not including the suburbs of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. In the city itself, 41% of the population is Christian, while 59% is Muslim. Christians used to be a large majority but their numbers have declined throughout the 20th century. Although Arabic is the language of Bethlehem's inhabitants, English, French and other languages are widely spoken and understood by many people in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem has meaning for Muslims as well as Christians and Jews, since they also believe in Jesus. However, unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah - they think he was one of many prophets. The city also has great significance for Jews because it is the home of David, hence the City of David, and is also the traditional site of Rachel's Tomb (on the outskirts of the town) both in the Old Testament. Bethlehem is in the West Bank and as we know the biblical birthplace of Jesus, it’s a major Christian pilgrimage destination. The birth is considered to be in a grotto under the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, which shares Manger Square with the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine and the 1860 Mosque of Omar. When entering the church where the grotto is you have to first bend down because the entrance is a small door. Going inside, you see the remnants of the old church which is being preserved and areas that you are not able to go into. The structure is mostly sound but somewhat dark and gloomy in appearance, only the adjoining Franciscan Church of St Catherine (dated 1881 and the site of the yearly December 24 midnight mass broadcast around the world) being in excellent shape. The original Manger is called “the Grotto of the Nativity,” and is accessible from inside the church. (The tomb of famed theologian and Bethlehem resident St. Jerome, who spent his life translating the Bible, is also in the cave with the Grotto.) I remember that we had to go down some stairs into a darkened cave area to what was considered the actual birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like almost all historical sites in Israel, you just can’t say for certain that it is completely true. But, it was exciting to see and to witness all that went on in the cave.
The city of Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with the nearby Ephrath as the burial place for Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob (Gen 35:19, Gen 48:7). Salma, a grandson of Caleb, is called the “father of Bethlehem” (1 Chronicles 2:51) and is associated with its founding. The city was probably established as an Israelite settlement during the time of Judges (ca. 12th-11th centuries B.C.).