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Israeli-Palestinian Violence Triggers Christian Arab Exodus - 2001-09-19


For years now, the number of Christians in the Middle East has been dwindling steadily. The last year of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians has accelerated the Christian exodus.

Christians dominated the Middle East for more than six centuries. They far outnumbered the Muslims and Jews who lived there with them.

Today, Christians number fewer than 14 million in the region, compared with a Muslim population of more than 340 million. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, they number fewer than 180,000 and account for less than two percent of the population. And their numbers continue to decline dramatically.

Bernard Sabella runs the Palestinian Affairs department of the Middle East Council of Churches. He estimates between 500 and 600 Christian Arabs have been leaving the West Bank each month since the latest Palestinian uprising erupted a year ago.

The numbers multiplied after Israel sent tanks into the mostly Christian West Bank village of Beit Jala in August. Mr. Sabella calls it a hemorrhage.

"Historically, when you talk about people leaving from the Holy Land, usually they leave when there is a political situation characterized by insecurity, uncertainty and the impact of the political situation on the economic situation," he explains.

Suha Tareh, 23, of Beit Jala plans to leave for the United States within a few months. She admits it was not an easy decision.

"Leaving Beit Jala, it is difficult for me to leave Beit Jala. I love this place. I love this country. This is where I was born," she says. " But what can I do? Life will go on and I can't take it here and I hope to find a better life in the United States."

Father Michael McGarry runs Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Bethlehem. He says many families in Beit Jala are tired of getting caught in the crossfire in the latest Palestinian uprising against Israel.

But Father McGarry says security is not the only concern.

"Unemployment in the West Bank is variously estimated at between 30 and 70 percent," he says. "Hidden within those statistics are people who are actually out of work and people who are working without getting paid. How do you describe someone who is a social worker or teacher who has been working for three months and not getting paid? They're not unemployed but they're not getting any money either."

Father McGarry says church leaders and Christian aid groups are doing all they can to encourage people to stay, including financial aid, work programs and charity.

"The nightmare is that perhaps there will come a time when the Holy Land will be the equivalent of a Christian theme park with all these building commemorating great events in the life of Jesus but without a living community to sustain them," Father McGarry says.

Well-educated youngsters like Suha see little future if they stay home as long as the political and economic situations remain so uncertain. Her father had to close down his hotel in Beit Jala for lack of tourists and now is thinking of leaving the country too.

"My dad is very depressed and my dad is a businessman," she explains. "And now he is sitting at home doing nothing and for him it's too much. He can't take it anymore."

Researcher Bernard Sabella of the Middle East Council of Churches says the exodus of educated, middle and upper-middle class families is undercutting future plans for investment and development.

Christians inside Israel also complain of social and political discrimination and efforts to move them out and alter the demographic balance.

Mr. Sabella says changing demographics will not help the peace efforts either.

"It is not a question of political commitment, it's a question of you belong to a place or not. I belong. I want my children to belong. I look forward to a time when my belonging to the place and the Israeli belonging to the place won't clash or contradict one another," he says.

Young Christian Arabs like Suha express little optimism.

"If I leave here it's going to be permanent because the situation the conflict in this country will never end. This is what I know. It will never end," she says.

Christians in the region also express concern over the spreading influence of Muslim fundamentalists and a general lack of democratic institutions to protect their rights as a minority.

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