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Strife Spurs Slow Exodus of West Bank Christians

The group's decline in the biblical region has accelerated amid political and economic upheaval and Israeli- Palestinian hostilities.

April 14, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — From an office near the traditional birthplace of Christ, Mayor Hanna Nasser frets about the prospects for Christians in his slice of the Holy Land.

The outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians more than four years ago has accelerated emigration by Palestinian Christians that began years earlier.

Researchers and officials say 3,000 Christians have left the Bethlehem area since 2000, heading for the United States, Australia and Latin America as the local economy fell victim to fighting, Israeli roadblocks and other restrictions, including a new barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Over the past decade, the Palestinian Christian population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip has declined about 10%, leaving about 45,000 remaining, said Bernard Sabella, a Bethlehem University sociologist who studies the issue.

Bethlehem's crucial tourism industry has been hit hard, forcing residents to look for work elsewhere. The 120,000 or so tourists who visited Bethlehem last year -- mostly in organized groups -- represent barely a tenth of the number before 2000, Nasser said.

Bethlehem witnessed fierce fighting in 2002 between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants, some of whom took cover for weeks inside the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds that Jesus Christ was born.

Nasser, 68, who is Catholic and displays a photograph of himself shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, gestured toward the church and considered a gloomy future for Palestinian Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox.

"I'm afraid we'll come and see nothing but stones here -- the stones of the churches, but no people," Nasser said.

Christians face serious challenges throughout the Middle East, experts say, including harassment, their relatively low birthrates and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Guy Bechor, a Middle East specialist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, said the late pope bears some blame for not acting forcefully on behalf of Christian communities in the Arab world.

"The Vatican was perhaps the only element that could have united the Christian interests in the Middle East, but [it] just ... abandoned its flock," Bechor wrote recently in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

However, sociologist Sabella believes that political and economic upheaval, rather than religious differences, were chiefly responsible for driving away Christians, who often are better educated and more affluent than other Arabs.

"Turbulent times -- these are pushing people out," he said. "It's not religion."

About 4,500 Muslims also have left Bethlehem in recent years, for example, but their rate of departure has not been as high as that of Christians.

According to Nasser, Bethlehem was more than 90% Christian in 1948, when Israel's war of independence made refugees of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom resettled in camps here.

The influx reduced the proportion of Christians in Bethlehem, and by some estimates, they now account for less than a quarter of Bethlehem's population of 30,000.

Many Palestinian Christians have ties abroad, and most people can name one or more relatives who have left. Those who stay see few good prospects.

Samar Hanna, a college student from neighboring Beit Jala, said her brother recently moved to Honduras to join relatives who had abandoned the West Bank years earlier.

"There was no job opportunity for him. He has a degree in accounting, but he was teaching driving," said Hanna, who is Greek Orthodox and will soon graduate from Bethlehem University. "If he doesn't leave to start his future when he's 26, when will he do it?"

Hanna, 21, is to receive a degree in hotel management. Although tourism has begun to creep back in recent months, her fortunes may hinge on a more robust recovery.

"If tourism becomes better, I will stay -- for sure," she said, sitting with friends in the school's cafeteria.

One of her classmates, 21-year-old Irene Jabra, said Palestinian Christians increasingly feel caught in the middle.

Although as Palestinians they are subject to Israeli restrictions, Jabra said she and Christian friends at times feel alienated from local Muslims, especially tradition-minded women from outlying villages who shoot disapproving looks at the young women's fashionable jeans and uncovered hair.

Though no longer the majority in Bethlehem, Christians control the City Council under an arrangement signed by the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The posts of mayor and vice mayor are reserved for Christians by an agreement dating to Ottoman rule. Under the deal, the mayor is always Catholic, the vice mayor Orthodox.

Nasser said local Muslim leaders have agreed that Christians will hold eight of the council's 15 seats after municipal elections in May. "But I cannot tell you what will happen after that," he said.

Residents say the answer to the slow disappearance of Christians in Bethlehem is peace with Israel and an end to the barriers and travel restrictions that Israel says are necessary to keep out suicide bombers.

Ibrahim Baboun, a Christian who was smoking outside his cousin's souvenir shop along Manger Square, said he has an aunt in San Francisco and other relatives in El Salvador and Germany. He left for Italy more than a year and a half ago to study but came back because he didn't like it there.

Baboun, 20, said he planned to stay, even though life in Bethlehem was hard. "My grandfather, my father -- we lived here and we want to stay here forever," he said. "It's our land."

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