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Filmmaker Portratys Bethlehem as Diverse Model for Middle East

When Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour returned to Bethlehem to make a film about her home town, she had no idea she would end up running a campaign to put the ancient city on the world map as a model for diversity in the Middle East.

Sansour left Bethlehem as a teenager in 1983, disdainful of its size and determined never to return, but retraced her footsteps in 2004 to make a film about the city as a tribute to her late father, Anton Sansour, founder of Bethlehem University.

Returning to the city that gave birth to Christianity and is on the occupied West Bank, she found herself drawn into a campaign opposing Israel’s construction of an eight-meter (26 ft) high barrier weaving through the West Bank and Bethlehem.

Israel began building the wall in 2002 after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, citing security. Palestinians see the wall as a symbol of Israeli oppression that deprives them of land where they want to establish an independent state.

Sansour spent four years building a campaign called Open Bethlehem to promote the heritage of the city and to push for the wall to come down. But funding dried up so instead she decided to return to what she knew best – film making.

The result, that took several years in the making, is a 90-minute documentary, “Open Bethlehem,” drawing from 700 hours of original and archival footage telling Sansour’s story about her fight for Bethlehem.

Releasing the film this week, Sansour said the time was right to put the world spotlight back on Bethlehem, a city proud of its diversity, and urged people to visit her home town and to apply for a symbolic Bethlehem passport set up by her campaign.

“We want to use Bethlehem to highlight the damage that is being caused in the whole Middle East region, we want people to see it with their own eyes,” Sansour told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

“We are hoping the film will be a powerful tool to revive our campaign and raise awareness about what is happening there and how it is possible to have a multi-faith, diverse city.”

Bethlehem, with a population of about 25,000 and a massive tourist industry, has a Muslim majority but is also home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities.

Sansour, who was raised a Christian, said the Open Bethlehem campaign was about preserving Bethlehem’s heritage and ensuring it stays an open, multi-faith city in the Middle East.

Around 50,000 Palestinian Christians, including 17,000 Catholics, live among four million Muslims in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza.

They say Israel’s checkpoints and separation barrier cut them off from their neighbors and holy places in Jerusalem.

Sansour said she hoped her film and campaign would raise awareness of the situation aided by the symbolic Bethlehem passport that grants citizenship to the world’s best known “little town” – as sung in the popular Christmas carol – that stands for “joy and goodwill to all.”

“We can build two countries there that are happy and prosperous or we can continue having an open-ended conflict until the end of time,” she said.

The film “Open Bethlehem” and campaign will be launched in Britain during Christmas 2014 and in the United States during Christmas 2015.

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