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Intifada Adds to Reasons Why Christians are Leaving Bethlehem - 2003-12-23

After more than three years of violence and hardship, Christian residents are continuing to move out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born. But others say they are determined to live through the current hard times in the hope that one day the town that for many is a symbol of peace, will actually be at peace.

The turn of the century seemed to herald a turnaround for those living in the town known as the cradle of Christianity.

It was predicted that a flood of Christian tourists would mark the 2000th anniversary of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem and this would provide much-needed jobs and investment for years after.

But as 2004 approaches, the dream has clearly not materialized and residents are struggling to survive.

One of those who took the gamble on a revival in tourism was local businessman Edward Tabash, who invested in the building of a large souvenir shop on the main road between the Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

"This place was built with my partners, and we built it with the dream that millions of people are going to come and visit the Holy Land," he said. "It sells olive wood, mother of pearl jewelry."

At first, it seemed that Mr. Tabash had hit on a successful plan, as the business began to thrive. But he had not factored in the possibility that there would be renewed violence between the Israelis and Palestinians that started in September 2000.

"We started with only seven workers [and] by 2000 we had 36 salesmen in this store," he recalled. "And then when the intifada [uprising] broke out, everything collapsed, and today we only have three workers working officially in this store."

Before the onset of violence, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people, Mr. Tabash used to host up to 12 busloads of tourists every day.

But since the fighting began, he has only seen a trickle of tourists. And like many other businesses in a town that is dependent on tourism, he is coping with daily financial losses.

Only in recent months has he had cause for some hope as he saw some pilgrims beginning to make visits after a couple of months of relative quiet.

One of Mr. Tabash's suppliers, Atallah Zakaria, runs a small family factory with his brother, producing hand-made olive wood craft items.

The business, which dates back to his great-grandfather, is more than 70 years old and is known for its artistry in making figures, most notably representations of the Nativity scene.

But Mr. Zakaria has also run into hard times.

"A year and a half ago, I closed the factory for six months," he said. "There was no work, no nothing, no export. The situation is very bad."

It was only recently that he decided to re-start production, after receiving orders from Europe and the United States.

Other Christians in Bethlehem have not been able to hold out. Mr. Zakaria has seen many of his fellow Christians move abroad.

"There are a lot of people leaving," said Mr. Zakaria. "The situation is very bad. For me and my family, I cannot leave. It means a lot for us that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We are a witness to Jesus. It is my home."

His house is only meters away from the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot that tradition holds is where Jesus was born. But although it is one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the sanctuary has not been immune from the conflict.

The shrine came under siege last year after Palestinian militants shot their way into the church in an attempt to escape arrest from Israeli soldiers.

Since the start of the Palestinian uprising, there have been at least six Israeli military incursions into Bethlehem.

Local officials say these raids by the Israeli military and closures of the West Bank have cost more than $5 million in damage to private and public property, and countless millions in lost tourism.

Palestinian officials say unemployment in Bethlehem has soared to 65 percent, and more than 60 percent of the town's residents are living in poverty.

Mayor Hanna Nasser cannot recall a worse Christmas, adding that there will be no organized celebration because there is no money to hold one. He says anyone expecting to see a big party like the town hosted in Manger Square in past years would be disappointed.

The mayor also says the town's Christian identity is long gone. The exodus of Christians from Bethlehem began with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and eventually Muslims became the largest religious group in the town.

Mayor Nasser says more Christians have left the area in recent years because of the violence.

"We started to lose our demography, and we are no more the majority," said Mr. Nasser. "Now we are only 35 percent of 28,000 inhabitants in the city. During the last year, 1,500 left for good because they have lost their jobs, because they could not survive anymore. It is a big mess for us."

Mr. Nasser says only a political breakthrough could reverse the process.

Souvenir shop owner Edward Tabash agrees. He says the situation will only improve when tourists feel it is safe to travel to the area again. And he has not given up hope.

"We still have some hope," said Mr. Tabash. "Without hope, we would not be here, and we are hoping that both sides will understand that force is not going to accomplish anything, but forgiveness and reconciliation and understanding each other. This is the right way."

From his front door, Mr. Tabash can see the Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the town, where soldiers are examining cars and pedestrians. He says he hopes that one day soon both Israelis and Palestinians will realize that they need each other in order to survive, and to bring peace to this town that for Christians around the world is a symbol of just that.