The birthplace of Jesus is now a gritty metropolis. On the road to the Church of the Annunciation, Arabs sell merchandise for both tourists and locals: nativity dolls, Christ figurines, embroidered scarves and skirts. On a building beside the church’s entrance, an enormous sign displays text from the Qur’an, written in Arabic with English translation underneath: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.”
Inside The Church of the Annunciation, the Israeli sun blazes through stained glass windows. In the 1960s, the church was built in atop the supposed location in which Angel Gabriel announced Christ’s impending birth to Mother Mary.
In order to see the exact space in which this angelic interaction occurred, I descended a small set of steps and looked through a metal grating at the foot of the stairs. Beyond the grating was a well-lit cavernous room that could have belonged to any place at any time, embellished by a flowered altar that supported a large, lit candle. I watched an Asian couple snap pictures in front of the metal grating. Their bemused teenage son looked blankly at the camera, seemingly under-whelmed by the spare religious site behind him. I sympathized.
On the upper level, pews lined up before an ornate stage with an altar. Paintings were everywhere, some accompanied by Hebrew script and others captioned in Arabic. A uniformed woman sat at the back of the church, shushing chatty visitors to preserve the sanctity of the sacred space. I looked around: no one was praying. Outside was a stone fountain capped by an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, who—as always—held her arms out in welcome.