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Christians Disappearing in Birthplace of Jesus

Every year at this time, Christians around the world turn their attention to Bethlehem, a small city in the West Bank, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. Christians have lived in Bethlehem for centuries, but now many are leaving. A bloody Palestinian uprising and the construction of a massive security barrier around the city mean the Christmas spirit is quickly disappearing.

It is a Christmas tradition that marching bands parade through the streets of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The bands, made up of Palestinian schoolchildren, march up and down the hilly, cold, windy streets of Bethlehem, making their way to Manger Square, just across from the church of the Nativity, which is built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Just a few years ago, Pope John Paul II held a Christmas Eve mass at the Church, and tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims thronged the streets of Bethlehem.

However few pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem in recent years. Five years of Palestinian violence, known as the second intifada, have destroyed Bethlehem's economy, which is heavily based on tourism. Bethlehem's mayor, Dr. Victor Batarseh, says the violence is forcing people to leave their city, and most affected are Bethlehem's Christians.

"Due to the stress, either physical or psychological, and the bad economic situation, many people are emigrating, either Christians or Muslims, but it is more apparent among Christians, because they already are a minority, and it is because it is easier for a Christian family to emigrate, because they have family abroad already, in the U.S. in South or Central America, or Australia, or Canada," said Dr. Batarseh. "That is why Christian emigration is more apparent. We need this city to remain as a model of co-existence between the two religions. The more emigration we get this model will dissolve."

More than 3,000 Christians, or about 10 percent of Bethlehem's Christian population, have left the city since the Palestinian uprising began five years ago. Until the middle of the 20th Century, Bethlehem was about 90 percent Christian. However thousands of Muslim Palestinian refugees poured into the city following the establishment of Israel in 1948, beginning a population shift that continues to this day. Now Muslims far outnumber Christians, who now make up about 35 percent of Bethlehem's 60,000 residents.

Bernard Sabella is a Palestinian Christian, who teaches sociology at Bethlehem University. He says, another factor that could increase Christian emigration from Bethlehem is that Bethlehem's traditional social and economic ties to nearby Jerusalem have been cut both by the violence, and by Israel's construction of a massive wall, or security barrier, that seals Bethlehem off from Jerusalem.

"The political situation reflects quite negatively on the economic situation," said Mr. Sabella. "Therefore, when you have a bad economic situation, that becomes a push factor. Now add to this, recently, the building of the barrier, or the separation wall, that Israel built.

"If you go to Bethlehem today, and you see the wall, well, some people actually start crying and weeping, because, really, it is horrible to see the little town of Bethlehem surrounded by a wall," he continued. "My concern as a sociologist, and as a Palestinian Christian, is that this is going to be an added economic push factor for people to leave."

Bethlehem's residents say Israel's 680-kilometer security barrier is strangling their city, and will cut off the slow economic recovery that began this year, when violence largely subsided, in part due to a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups. Israeli security officials, like Lieutenant Colonel Aviv Feigel, who heads the Israeli Defense Forces District Coordination and Liaison for Bethlehem, say it is precisely because of the construction of the security barrier that violence has largely subsided for the time being.

"Please consider that, during 2004, half of the Israelis murdered by Palestinians inside Israel by terrorist acts were acts that emanated from Bethlehem," he noted. "The new passage and entrance to Bethlehem is a security measure that is trying to find a balance between Israeli security needs and the importance that we are giving to this area, in the eyes of the Christian world and its legacy."

Israel allows relatively free access to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, but just about everyone who returns to Jerusalem, including tourists, who visit the city in large buses, must get off and wait in long lines, before passing through turnstiles, while buses and luggage are carefully checked.

Nadia Hazboun, from one of the largest Christian families in Bethlehem, runs a small souvenir shop off of Manger Square, says the restrictions and reputation for violence that people now associate with Bethlehem mean that, even when tourists visit, they seldom linger. She says life for Christians in Bethlehem has become very hard.

"Many of the families here in Bethlehem, not only my family, but most families in Bethlehem, cannot bring food for their children," she said. "It is a very difficult life, I think, so they leave."

Nadia Hazboun says, while a few tourists started to return recently, not enough are coming to ease the economic burdens of Bethlehem's Christians, who dominate the town's tourist trade. Christmas in Bethlehem, she says, is no longer merry.