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  • JOHN BATARSEH / Special to The Bee

    Dr. Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem, meets with Mayor Kevin Johnson in Sacramento in 2010. The two traded gifts to mark their sister city status.

  • "I don't believe in states built on religion, whether it is Islam, Judaism or Christianity," says Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

Q&A: Meet Bethlehem's mayor -- he's a former Sacramentan

Published: Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 - 6:59 am

Victor Batarseh is the mayor of Bethlehem in the West Bank, Sacramento's sister city. He was in California in July to visit his children, who live in Sacramento and San Francisco.

A Roman Catholic, Batarseh was born in Bethlehem but lived in Cairo, where he attended medical school, as a young man. He has also lived in Sacramento and Jerusalem.

His city made international headlines when UNESCO designated Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage site in June. U.S. and Israeli officials said the decision was politically motivated by a desire to promote Palestinian statehood.

Batarseh spoke with The Bee about his experience as the mayor of one of the world's most spiritually significant cities in an area torn by decades of strife, and about the importance of the sisterships among Bethlehem, Sacramento and other cities.

Tell me about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity is where our Lord Jesus Christ was born, and it is the oldest church in the world. That's why we tried our best to put it on the list of historical sites. It took about five years to prepare the documents necessary.

Why was it controversial?

It's the rules and regulations of UNESCO that whenever you want to place a site in the records as a heritage site, it is registered to a state, and that's why Israel and the U.S. and other countries were against making the church a historical site as recognized by UNESCO. It is also a recognition of the church as part of Palestine as a state.

UNESCO will be responsible for renovating and maintaining this holy site. This was the main goal. But in an indirect way, it leads to the recognition of a Palestinian state.

What's your view of the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world since last spring?

I don't believe in states built on religion, whether it is Islam, Judaism or Christianity. Unfortunately, the Western powers are backing the Muslim Brotherhood, who are trying to get all these states to follow Islamic law, which is undemocratic.

Cairo was never this way. When I was there, Egypt was a democratic, secular state. Unfortunately, now if you go to Cairo, it's changed. You cannot have a true democracy in a state that's built on religion. Religion is between you and God.

What is the importance of Bethlehem's sister cities?

Bethlehem is an international city that is very important to every Christian all over the world. I have very close connections with many sister cities all over the world. I have 66 sister cities, including four in the United States.

People get to know each other better. It's a two-way system. There is an exchange of students, sports teams and culture. This brings people together globally. This is the best way to reach global peace.

This is why we started the sistership about three years ago between Sacramento and Bethlehem. People have come to Bethlehem from Sacramento and lived here and helped in many ways, teaching English, teaching swimming classes or planting olive trees.

How did Sacramento's relationship with Bethlehem come about?

It started with a lady who was married to a Palestinian, (the late) Mary Bisharat. She was married to a Palestinian doctor, and she was helping a lot in the Sacramento region with various charitable institutions. She thought of doing this sistership with Bethlehem, that it could help the people there.

Unemployment is about 20 percent due to the closure of Bethlehem from both sides. Nobody can leave the city unless he gets a special permit from the Israeli authorities to go to Jerusalem.

Are there places in the world you love to visit?

Every city has its own beauty. The Mediterranean, especially the seaside. Sardinia. San Francisco. Beirut in Lebanon. I love Beirut.

You've been mayor for eight years. Will you run again in the elections that are planned for October, or will you step down?

I am not decided.

What are the differences between being a doctor and being a mayor?

To treat people medically is less difficult. Medically, you have bases you can work on. But in everyday issues, with differences between one person and another, you cannot satisfy everyone, and everyone has his own ideas. Everyone wants prestige for himself. This is the trouble I'll be going back to in a few days.

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