BETHLEHEM, West Bank--I left New York, an Israeli diplomat gave me some friendly advice: "Don't believe anything anybody tells you, not even people who share my point of view." I thought he was being cynical; I'm beginning to see he was just being realistic.

I set out for Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, the city of Christ's birth, just south of Jerusalem, in advance of Pope John Paul II's visit here Wednesday. An Israeli woman gave me a ride, but insisted on dropping me at the Israeli military checkpoint about a mile and a half out of town. She apologized, but said she didn't feel safe crossing over into the Palestinian-ruled territory.

"Fifteen years ago, I was stoned while walking with a Dutch journalist through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City," she said, visibly nervous. "I wouldn't have even driven this far if I hadn't had a man in the car with me."

I thanked her for the ride, stepped out of the car and walked through the checkpoint. I thought about what it means that Arabs can walk unmolested virtually anywhere in Israel, but most Jews I meet are terrified they'll be attacked in the lands where the intifada reigned a few years ago.

Just ahead of me on the dusty road to Bethlehem, I spotted a fellow hiker, a tall man in jeans and a T-shirt. He looked American, so I rushed to catch up. Indeed he was a fellow countryman, a pastor who has lived and worked in an Israeli Arab town for 10 years. He seemed as eager as I to share the walk with someone.

As we made our way into Bethlehem's outskirts, I was startled by its shabbiness, and told him so. "Oh, this is clean!" he said. He pointed out how Palestinians used the hills and valleys on the route as garbage dumps. "Even if you're poor, you don't have to live that way," he remarked.

I told the pastor what I had seen and heard on Sunday by going to church in the West Bank town of Bir Zeit, and how it had opened my mind to the Palestinian plight. The pastor was somewhat skeptical.

"Well, they do have it hard, but you should understand that a lot of what strikes your American eyes as run-down about Arab towns is cultural more than economic," he said.

He explained that the filth apparent in Bethlehem, even a Bethlehem that the Palestinians have supposedly cleaned for the Pope, wouldn't appear as amiss to the Arabs of this region. "The last time I was in Bethlehem, I saw Arabs throwing the trash left over from their lunches right on the street and the sidewalk. That's not the culture you and I grew up in, and that's not how the Israelis are."

Furthermore, he said, the Palestinians blame Israel for all of their problems ("The conspiracy theories I hear would blow your mind."), but Israel prospers because it's a democracy ruled by Western law and standards. He said, "No Israeli, not even an Israeli Arab, would stand for the mafia way of running things that you see from Yassir Arafat and his crew. You just wouldn't believe the corruption."

As we approached Manger Square, the pastor warned that Palestinian Muslims and Christians would have me believe they get along wonderfully, that the Israelis are their only problem.

"That's just not true," he said. "Believe me, I live with this. If you're a Palestinian Christian and your Muslim neighbor dies, you aren't going to send over even a plate of cookies. And vice versa.

"It's hard for Americans to understand how little regard people in societies like this have for those of different faiths," he continued. "I see it among my Arab colleagues in the ministry. A lot of times they pay lip service to 'love thy neighbor,' but in unguarded moments, you can see how they really feel about those outside the clan. Christianity, I'm sorry to say, is often just a veneer over sheer tribalism."

In light of this, and recalling that the pastor told me how he was routinely spit on when he ventured into ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods while wearing his clerical garb, I told him I had a new appreciation for the official secularism of America, of which I often despair. Yes, this man of the cloth said, this place will do it to you.

We said goodbye at the seedy city square, which is dominated by an enormous banner image of Arafat greeting the pope. On the two official welcome banners, Arafat's name is bigger than the pope's--and only Arafat's will be in lights. That the Palestinian leader is blatantly using the Holy Father for political reasons struck me as disgusting. God bless the separation of church and state.

I had a look inside the Church of the Nativity, at the cave under the main altar where tradition says Jesus was born. The tiny cave room was crowded and sweaty with pilgrims, but their fervency to touch the holy site was no more threatening than the sort you see at a Bloomingdale's white sale.

Walking out of the church and past the vast throng of Christian pilgrims, most of them from North America and Europe, I was struck by how benign and cheerful they were in their exuberant piety. This is a product of historical circumstances. For example: our medieval ancestors in faith, the Crusaders, who crowned their kings at this church during their reign, slaughtered Jews, Muslims and Eastern Christians--and thought themselves holy for so doing.

I hailed an Arab taxi on Manger Street, and asked him to take me back to Jerusalem. On the route, he made sure to tell me that all Palestinians, Muslim (like himself) and Christian, get on famously. Israelis destroyed all the industry and agriculture in Palestinian areas, he said. If not for the Israelis, life would be good for his people, he said.

Was he being honest with me, or having me on? Was the pastor truthful, or badly prejudiced? "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate famously asked, and you can see how the people of this land made him doubt.

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