The Turkish period
In 1517 Palestine became part of the Turkish Empire and Sultan Selim I torn down the remaining walls of Bethlehem. The town slowly fell into a state of ruin, and the oppressed and persecuted Christians gradually began to leave. Rights to the church were divided between the Franciscans and the Orthodox and this was the cause for continual clashes, with the government of the Sublime Porte supporting first one side and then the other by granting various privileges.
In 1690 the Franciscan friars succeeded in reacquiring their rights, but in 1757 a new and definitive change in ownership took place. Between 1831 and 1841 Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, and his son Ibrahim Pasha managed for a short period of time to liberate Palestine from Turkish domination.
During this time Christians claimed their rights to the town of Bethlehem and, after years of submission and persecutions, expelled the Muslims and in 1834 destroyed their quarter. From this point onwards the majority of the town’s population was Christian. One of the most noted and significant events marking this period relates to the Grotto of the Nativity and the dispute among the various religious denominations, leading to the end of the leading role of the Latins at the place where Jesus was born.
This development was brought about by the Greek Orthodox on 18 October 1847 and aggravated the conflict between the two confessions. As a result of these frictions, and seeking to restore peace after centuries of conflicts, in 1852 the Turkish government issued a firman ratifying the existing property rights within the Christian sanctuaries (the so-called Status Quo). In gratitude for the contribution of the European countries to victory in the Crimean War against Russia, the Sublime Porte conceded increased liberties to the Latins.
During this period numerous religious congregations began to settle in Palestine and become involved in schools, hospitals and hospices. The arrival of a large number of Westerners left a mark on the town that is visible even today.
In 1859 the Franciscans acquired Siyar al-Ghanam, Shepherds’ Fields, where subsequent excavations uncovered the remains of constructions from the Byzantine period that, according to tradition, marked the existence of a place of worship. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, as a consequence of its defeat in the First World War, Palestine became in 1922 a protectorate of Great Britain, on the basis of international agreements.