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Fewer Christians 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 Christ was born. Christians have lived in Bethlehem for centuries, but now many are leaving. A bloody Palestinian uprising over the past few years and the construction of a massive security barrier around the city have diminished the Christmas spirit from Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity -- the site that Christians venerate as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It is located in Bethlehem -- one of the largest cities in the Palestinian territories.

Manger Square, which is just across the street from the Church of the Nativity, would have been filled with thousands of tourists at this time of the year. However, last year less than 3,000 tourists visited at Christmas time -- down from an average of 90,000 at this time of year less than a decade ago.

This year does not look much better. Pilgrims still come to Bethlehem, but they are few in number. Fears over possible violence and an Israeli security barrier have kept them away.

At the same time, many residents of this historic city are leaving -- especially members of Bethlehem's once-majority Christian population.

More than 3,000 Christians -- about 10 percent of Bethlehem's population -- have left the city since the Palestinian Intifada began six years ago. Now, even though the Intifada is dormant, Christians continue to flee the city, crippling its once vibrant economy.

At City Hall, officials are struggling to cope with the effects of a fleeing population and the economic crisis in the Palestinian territories -- brought on this year by the Islamic militant group Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel. Donors have cut aid as a result to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government and Israel has stopped turning over customs and tax revenue to the Palestinians -- Bethlehem city employees have not been paid in months.

Mayor Victor Batarseh, who is not a member of Hamas, and is from one of Bethlehem's leading Christian families, says Israel's separation barrier -- built to keep suicide bombers out of Israel -- has also crippled the city. "Well, the impact of the wall, not only on Manger Square but on all merchants in the city actually, is very bad. Because this hindered the free entrance of tourists and pilgrims to the city of Bethlehem which is a major source of income to Bethlehem."

Israel's 650-kilometer separation barrier slices through Bethlehem's streets, turning many into dead-ends. The barrier has cut Bethlehem off from its traditional neighbor, Jerusalem, which lies just on the side of the towering barrier. Bethlehem's Palestinians say the wall has turned their city into a prison.

But Israelis say neighborhoods, visible from Bethlehem's hills, are now safe from suicide bombers.

Israeli authorities say the restrictions that Palestinians endure at checkpoints like this are necessary because the security barrier has stopped suicide bombers from entering Jerusalem from Bethlehem. One hundred seventy two Jerusalem residents died in suicide bombings in recent years. There have been no attacks in the city since the security barrier was built.

Atallah Mansour, who is an expert on Arab Christian populations throughout the Middle East, says Christians are leaving the region, mainly for economic reasons. He says some Bethlehem Christians who had returned to the city in recent years are leaving again because of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Bethlehem, up to 15 years ago, had a majority of Christian people. People who left the country 100 years ago and 50 years ago to Chile and Brazil, they were coming back and there was a feeling that things were improving,” says Mansour. “Now, more and more people will leave and there will be less and less Christians and if this story will go on for another decade or two, maybe there will only be monks."

George Baboul and his family have run the Bethlehem Star Store selling souvenirs just off Manger Square for 40 years. He says life for Christians in Bethlehem has become very hard and most, especially the young, want to leave.

"They are leaving because they are for a better life, better work. Most of the Christians go back to United States, as well as Europe, Sweden, or something like that, or Germany. They're fed up with life here. They want to live like a human being, to feel like a human being."

George Baboul says he has seen a few tourists starting to return in the past few days, but not enough to ease the economic burdens of Bethlehem's Christians. Christmas in Bethlehem, he says, is no longer merry.