May 22, 2014Updated: May 22, 2014 21:15:00
BETHLEHEM // Pope Francis will arrive this weekend in the land where Christianity was born – and where Christians are disappearing.
This ancient community has dwindled to around 2 per cent of the region’s population as economic hardship, violence and the bitter realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.
The exodus, under way for decades, has reached critical levels in recent years.
Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled from over 10 per cent of the population, on the eve of Israel’s founding in 1948, to between 2 and 3 per cent today, according to the local Roman Catholic church.
Emigration is a central concern to local Vatican officials, who are trying to stave off the flight with offers of jobs, housing and scholarships.
“I am sad to think that maybe the time will come in which Christianity will disappear from this land,” said the Rev Juan Solana, a Vatican envoy who oversees the Notre Dame centre, a Jerusalem hotel for pilgrims that employs 150 locals, mostly Christians.
Rev Solana said he employs Christians to encourage them “to stay here, to love this land, to be aware of their particular vocation to be the witnesses of Christianity in this land”.
The Christian exodus is taking place across the Middle East. Jordan alone has thousands of Christian refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq.
For the Church in Bethlehem, the phenomenon is particularly heartbreaking in the cradle of Christianity. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.
Pope Francis said in a speech in November that “we will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians”, lamenting that they “suffer particularly from the consequences of the tensions and conflicts under way” across the region.
The decline began with high Jewish immigration and Christian emigration after the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment, and has been abetted by continued emigration and a low birthrate among Christians who stay.
Israeli restrictions in the occupied West Bank have also persuaded Christians to leave.
The concrete and fence barrier Israel built to keep out Palestinian attackers has choked cities like Bethlehem and separated Palestinians from their farmlands. Many Palestinian Christians are prohibited from entering Jerusalem except during holidays.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has also pushed people to leave, and instances of Islamic extremism, particularly in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, have made some Christians feel unwelcome, though relations between Palestinian Christians and Muslims are generally friendly.
West Bank Christians are preparing to share some of these grievances with Pope Francis, and artisans are fashioning a cross with cement pieces of Israel’s barrier for the Palestinian president to give the pope.
Elias Abumohor, a 44-year-old environmental engineer whose family was chosen to have an audience with Pope Francis, says he will tell the pope about his lands in an area partly owned by the Vatican where Israel is planning to route its barrier.
An estimated 80 per cent of Christian Palestinians live abroad, says the local Roman Catholic church, where they have had particular success in replanting themselves in Latin America, the United States and Europe.
About 38,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, 2,000 in Gaza, and 10,000 in Jerusalem, according to the local Roman Catholic church.
Israel has 130,000 Arab Christians. There are also nearly 200,000 non-native Christians in Israel, including Christians who moved from the former Soviet Union because of Jewish family ties, guest workers and African migrants.
* Associated Press