News / Middle East

Christian Exodus From Holy Land Fueled by Israeli Occupation, Lack of Opportunity

Israel put up this security barrier to protect itself from terrorist attacks by West Bank Palestinians, Oct 2010
Israel put up this security barrier to protect itself from terrorist attacks by West Bank Palestinians, Oct 2010

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The plight of Christians in the Middle East was the subject of a two-week meeting of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican in October. Thousands of Christians are leaving the region each year, some due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

In the cradle of Christianity, though, it also is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that is pushing many Christians to go. In the past six decades, their population has plummeted from roughly 8 percent to just over one percent in the West Bank.

Suha Asfour - born in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus - comes from a long line of Christians. Her relatives and the memories of them are in these photos. She is the last of her siblings left in Bethlehem. The others have gone to America.

Now, her husband - a renowned Bethlehem doctor - wants to pack up their home and leave, too. Dr. Samir Asfour, also a Palestinian Christian, said, "The financial situation is getting backwards. The wall is creating problems to the work, the living, to the everyday commuting from one town to the other. This makes life miserable for everybody, for all the Palestinians, not only the Christians."

Israel put up a security barrier and checkpoints to protect itself from terrorist attacks by West Bank Palestinians. For Suha Asfour, the barrier and restrictions on movement have brought suffering. She is bitter about having to leave her ancestral home, but feels she has no choice.

"It's like a prison," she said. "When you can't go out of Bethlehem, it's like in a cage.  It's like putting a bird in a cage, that can't go anywhere. So, the life is very hard. No job opportunities, no studying opportunities."

Christians were once the majority in Bethlehem and nearby towns. Their population was overwhelmed after 1948, when Israel's war of independence caused the displacement of thousands of mostly Muslim Arabs from present-day Israel to towns and refugee camps in the West Bank, like this one - the Aida camp in Bethlehem's outskirts.

Muslims and Christians have sometimes clashed, but overall they historically coexisted in Bethlehem. Publicly, both play down any suggestion of underlying religious tensions.  This Muslim resident of the Aida camp, like many Christians, accuses the Israeli occupation of creating divisions, both perceived and real.

"If you walk with Christians at the checkpoint, sometimes they (Israeli soldiers) stop you because you are Muslim and they allow the Christian to go. And sometimes they stop the Christian and allow the Muslim to go."

Compared to Muslim Palestinians, Christians tend to be wealthier, more educated, and better able to integrate in the Western world. This makes it easier for them to leave.  

The thought of being foreigners in a faraway land is a painful one. But the Asfours say they will do it for the sake of their children. "At least you'll find your liberty," said Dr. Asfour. "You'll live not to suffer, but to enjoy life. This is enough."

Suha Asfour still holds out hope, though, that conditions will change so that her family does not have to go. "I pray to God that things will be better soon. We always hope for the better for the Christians, for the Palestinians, and for the sake of our children. We want them to live like any other child in the world. To feel the freedom, liberty, to enjoy their life."  

For the Asfours, the only thing that could change life on this land is peace.

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