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Dwindling Number of Christians Celebrate Easter in Holy Land - 2003-04-20

Easter Sunday in the Holy Land was celebrated by a diminished flock of local Christians and only a handful of pilgrims from abroad. Nearly three years of violence has driven out many locals, and few tourists are now venturing to the area.

The dwindling group of Christians, who still live in what to them is the Holy Land, seems to be heading toward extinction.

A Christian foundation has been created to try to stem the exodus, and has issued an international appeal for help. The president is Brian Bush, an American who has married into the local community, and now lives in the Old City of Jerusalem.

"We were concerned with the plight of the local Christian families in the Holy Land, because what we have observed over the years is a great marginalization of Christians and their opportunities here. We are basically at about 160,000 Christians in Israel and the West Bank, in a sea of five million Jews and three million Muslims," he said.

Presenting his annual Easter message at a news conference in Jerusalem last week, the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, raised similar concerns. He said the problem is especially acute among Christian Palestinians in the West Bank.

"At the utmost, we are saying 2,000 have left [in the past two years], but even 2,000 is a big number. [For] We are [only] two percent; we are about 50,000 Christians in the territories," Mr. Sabbah said.

And while many local Christians are fleeing the region, few of their counterparts abroad have been traveling to Jerusalem, since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes in September 2000.

As a result, there have been no crowds at this year's Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site in Jerusalem most closely associated with Jesus' death.

The Holy Sepulcher is located in the Old City, and is revered as the place where Jesus was crucified, laid to rest and, according to Christian belief, rose from the dead.

Before the troubles began, Easter brought so many tourists to Jerusalem that many had to be turned away from the crowded site. This year, the few visitors to Jerusalem found they could walk right into the ornate interior of the church.

Mr. Bush fears that in future years there may not be enough local Christians left to even maintain the shrines. "We are concerned about the holy sites themselves. The holy sites cannot exist in isolation; they need a living breathing community to validate them. And if, God forbid, in 20 years' time, there is no Christian community here, what is going to become of these places, which are memorializing the life of Jesus Christ?" he asked.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a scholar and Roman Catholic priest at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, agreed that while the sacred areas might still survive, the support of a strong local Christian community is still important.

"If the local Christians leave, then of course, the holy places would, of course, be of interest to scholars, to pilgrims. But they would, in fact, be museums, and people like me, foreigners, would be the curators. They no longer - none of these churches - have vital communities," he said.

Mr. Bush said this trend should not be allowed to continue. He said the Christian world should work toward encouraging the local community to strengthen its roots in the Holy Land.

He said that what is needed is prayer and gifts toward educational scholarships for students, job training programs for adults and housing for families.

Mr. Bush says such measures could help Christians to stay in the area, and prevent the Holy Land from losing what he calls a "vital part of its mosaic."