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Pope Benedict to Reach Out to Palestinian Christians

During his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI will have a chance to reach out to Palestinian Christians in an effort to stop their exodus from the region. Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the percentage of Palestinian Christians has dwindled from 15 percent to two percent.

Sixty-year-old Issa Gharib fires up the carving machine at the statue factory where he has been designing and carving olive-wood statues for nearly five decades.

The statues of Jesus and of Christian saints are an age-old tradition in Bethlehem. But now, the art - along with the man whose hands fashion the statues - is in danger of disappearing.

Gharib, like thousands of other Christian Palestinian, wants to go to a Western, Christian-dominated country where he will be less of a minority. Jobs and opportunities, he says, have dried up in the West Bank. Relatives who once provided an important social and economic network have left.

Israel's construction of a security barrier between Israeli lands and the West Bank and the tightening of its restrictions on entry for Palestinians has meant that Christians - with their higher than average education - no longer have access to jobs and lucrative business opportunities in Israel.

He says outside of here there are opportunities. He says his children and his brother's children are university graduates and they have no job, they sit at home. He says there is no hope here.

Christians in the Palestinian territories are a minority within a minority. Israeli Jews view them as enemies because they are Palestinians. Muslims view them as different because they are of another faith.

Father Samuel Habib is the Parish Priest of Bethlehem. He speaks of the many pressures facing Christians.

Father Samuel says one of those pressures is emigration, their decreasing numbers, and the relinquishing of their land and property. He says there is also the issue of difficulties in living with others.

Many Christians privately say that a rise in Islamist sentiments is one reason for them to want to go.

This 23-year-old Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem, who preferred not to give his name, says he has a degree in information technology, but no where to put it to work. He perceives discrimination by Muslims.

He says that if a Christian goes to apply for a job, the Muslim will always get it if the the boss is Muslim. He says he believes that Muslims want this land for themselves and hope they will someday not see one Christian left here.

But Palestinian legislator and long-time sociology professor at Bethlehem University, Bernard Sabella, discounts discrimination and religious tensions as a major reason for the Christian exodus. He says surveys show Palestinian Christians do not cite religious differences as a principal reason for leaving.

"In a sense, we are worried, but it is not the main driving force," he said. "The main driving force remains economics. Employment. Why do you want to go to the U.S.? [They answer] 'Even with the global financial crisis, I still manage to work with my sister's husband's Seven-Eleven store.'"

At Bethlehem's St. Catherine's Church, a group of Muslim women tour near the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. One of the women says she values the presence of Christians and sees them as allies in the Palestinians' struggle against Israeli occupation. She sees their departure as a detriment.

She says she disagrees with the emigration of Christians. She says that in her opinion, Christians should remain on the land that is rightfully theirs.

Bethlehem and other West Bank towns that were once mostly Christian, now have Muslim majorities.

For Issa Gharib, the Christian exodus, which he may soon join, is a tragedy.

He says this is the land of Christians, too. It is the land of his grandfather. He says this is where Jesus was born, and millions of believers around the world have followed Him. He asks, "how can they leave this land?"

Pope Benedict's trip to the Holy Land is a pastoral visit. His main purpose is to reach the Christians, and offer support to a flock that every year is getting smaller.