Like most places in the Holy Land, there is more than one possible story explaining the creation of the Omar Mosque. Both stories center on the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab who conquered the Byzantine Empire in Jerusalem in the seventh century. Ibrahim Thwieb, the current imam of the mosque, says the more likely story is that Christians donated land to the Muslims in the seventh century in order to create good relations between the two faiths. The caliph prayed at a spot near the mosque, which is why it now bears his name.
The more commonly told story is that in the seventh century, Omar prayed in the Church of the Nativity and declared the site sacred, since Jesus is also an important prophet in Islam. To keep his followers from turning the church into a Muslim holy site and preventing Christians from worshiping there, the caliph instituted the Pact of Omar, which allowed individual Muslims to pray at the church but not groups. His protection of the church is one of the reasons it has, against all odds, survived for almost 2,000 years.
What we know for sure is that in 1860, the Greek Orthodox Church gave the land directly across from the Church of Nativity to build a mosque in the caliph’s honor. The mosque was originally a very small, modest building, but in 1953 the Jordanian government sponsored renovations. Again in 2004 the Emirati Association reconstructed the mosque after it was destroyed during the Second Intifada.
Today, the Mosque of Omar presides over Manger Square in Bethlehem. One of the only Muslim places of worship in the Christian Old City of Bethlehem, its melodious call to prayer is a fixture of life in Nativity Square. Both Christians and Muslims honor the site. It is said that before the mosque had electric lights, people of both faiths would donate olive oil to light its lamps.
The imam of the mosque sees the mosque as a symbol of brotherhood between Christians and Muslims and is proud of that legacy. Local tour guide Motasem Amro agrees. “It’s an amazing image to see a mosque across from a church,” he says. “It shows how good the relations are between the Christian and the Muslim communities.” The Omar mosque is less ornate than some other Muslim sites in the West Bank, but is worth visiting to taste a part of everyday life in Bethlehem. Inside you’ll find people praying, reading, or lost in contemplation. The inside of the mosque is an open, bright space with big windows overlooking the Old City.