“As a young priest, I’m trying to help the Palestinian people to stay in Bethlehem,” he said. “This is actually my vision and my work here: to try to keep the people, to try to help them thrive.”
With services at 5 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., with additional prayer services during Lent, Thaljieh is busy with church life as well as with his own family: his wife and three children, ages 8, 6, and 1.
With a sense of hope, he envisions Bethlehem as a place where people choose to stay, instead of leaving for a better life, a sense of freedom, or a job that pays a living wage.
His church currently has about 4,000 members, down from about 6,000 a decade ago. Each service usually has about 100 people in attendance.
“The numbers are going down. People leave because of the occupation, and this means the situation is not stable,” he said. “They have no freedom, and the people need freedom.”
Unemployment is also an issue, especially since during the COVID-19 pandemic many shops, hotels and restaurants shut down. “More people are leaving to seek freedom, and to seek a good job to provide for their families,” said Thaljieh.
His hope lies in God. “God is there for us,” he said. “I try to help people understand that, through prayer, they can have everything.”
Thaljieh, born and raised in Bethlehem, reflected that he could have settled with his family elsewhere. “The reasons I came back is to be with my own family, to be in my land, to serve my people,” he said. “This place is like no other—a place to follow the steps of Jesus Christ, to touch the old stones, to experience the history.”
Through his church leadership, Thaljieh tries to strengthen people’s faith so that they trust in God enough to stay in Bethlehem. “I know it’s difficult to live under these circumstances,” he said.
He often prays for peace. “The original message from Bethlehem to the world was one of love and peace,” he said.
He also prays for love. “I pray to keep the people united with each other,” he said. “The Christians and Muslims here in Bethlehem have the same fate as Palestinians with the occupation.”
Thaljieh believes that the church can help lead people to a place of hope and love. “I pray for people to understand their faith, to understand exactly what they want from their own life,” he said. “The most difficult situation is the occupation.”
When people don’t have freedom, they are in the equivalent of a prison, he said—and that’s not what Bethlehem was meant to be.
“I pray for God’s strength, for me to be in the place where Jesus was born, a place where we have to bring more people to their faith, and refresh their minds and souls,” he said. “I’m happy because I have the strength from God to fight for my people, to fight for my church, to get people to stay.”