With Christmas drawing near, there will be many depictions of the Christ-child laying in a peaceful manger in Bethlehem. But Bethlehem native and Aurora Catholic, George Bannoura, wants to remind the faithful that life as a Christian in the birthplace of Jesus is difficult—and this population needs the support of the global Catholic community.
The area’s Christian population, once a majority, now numbers only 1 percent. There is “a lot of fear for the future,” he said, and “a lot of political conflict.”
More than 300 years ago, Christian families like the Bannouras, began producing artwork and handicrafts from Bethlehem olive wood. Today their company, Bethlehem Handicrafts, makes the distinct wood available worldwide, while supporting artisans in the Holy Land.
“Christ was born in Bethlehem and Christmas is about Christ,” he told the Denver Catholic Register Nov. 14. “We have a small piece of Bethlehem here in Denver with the olive wood from where Christ was born.”
“We love keeping this (tradition) alive,” he said, “by also keeping the Christians alive.”
Bannoura’s father, brothers, uncles and cousins living in Bethlehem work in the business, as well as an additional 420 artisans that contribute work to the collection which includes statues, figurines, crucifixes, angels, rosaries, nativity scenes, ornaments, candle holders, bracelets, and the recent additions of kitchen utensils such as spoons, trays and salad servers—among other items.
“Our mission is to collect from more people,” Bannoura said, which helps provide a living for more Christians in a region where they face discrimination—and the tourism industry is struggling.
Bannoura, born and raised in Bethlehem, travels there every summer.
“People are afraid to go there,” he said. “They want to go to a safer place.”
However, he encouraged pilgrims to consider visiting the Holy Land. Archbishop Samuel Aquila led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month.
“The outlook for those Christians who remain in the land where Jesus walked is bleak,” the archbishop wrote in a recent letter to priests. “And we must support our brothers and sisters with our prayers and, when possible, with our financial support.”
Bannoura drew the comparison of Coloradans hosting out-of-town guests.
“If you have a guest coming from a different part of the country, you think of where you want to take them,” he said. “You’re not going to take them to dangerous places, places known for crime. You’re going to take them to the best places, places you know are safe.”
Similarly, Bethlehem locals take pilgrims to safe areas and the best hotels and restaurants.
“In my memory, I have never heard that tourists got injured while on pilgrimage,” he added.
Those unable to travel to Bethlehem can still bring a piece of this sacred land to Colorado through companies such as Bethlehem Handicrafts.
“The olive tree is the number one famous tree in the Holy Land,” Bannoura said, clarifying that his family’s company does not kill olive trees to make the products, but uses wood trimmed from the trees every October.
Following the olive harvest, considered a holiday, the trees are pruned to prepare for the windy season. That is the wood used for art and handicrafts, as well as for building fires and heating homes.
“In our family, we have trees over 800 years old,” he said. “There is a 4,000 year old tree in Bethlehem.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts items are available at parishes and online at www.bethlehemhandicrafts.com; and during the holidays at kiosks at Colorado Mills in Lakewood, Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Town Center at Aurora, Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree and Mesa Mall in Grand Junction.