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The Icon Painters of Bethlehem

Palestinian Christians reconnect with a nearly lost part of their spiritual heritage - and give some of them a skill that can feed a family in a difficult economic climate.

The lives of young Palestinian Christians are being transformed by this ancient spiritual art. At the heart of Bethlehem's old city sits the Bethlehem Icon Centre, a school training local Palestinian Christians to become icon painters - some of them to a professional standard. Unique in the Middle East, the school is best known for Our Lady of the Wall, a large-scale, striking image of the Virgin Mary painted onto the Israeli security barrier.

Its founder is a British icon painter, Ian Knowles, who aims to help Palestinian Christians reconnect with a nearly lost part of their spiritual heritage - and give some of them a skill that can feed a family in a difficult economic climate.

Mark Dowd visits Ian and his students at their studio in Bethlehem to discover what it means to them to study this ancient Christian art in Christ’s birthplace - in a town where Christians are now in the minority following large-scale emigration, and which has the highest unemployment rate anywhere in the West Bank.

Away from the school, we meet some of the students' families and local traders who sell Christian crafts to find out more about what it means to be a Christian in Bethlehem. Despite all the economic hardships, preparing for Christmas in Bethlehem is still special to the students who are making icons of the Madonna and child.

Image: A student at work on the icon of a saint, Credit: With kind permission of the Bethlehem Icon Centre

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