Christian Exodus on Upswing in Bethlehem, Elsewhere

Dan Wooding | ASSIST News Service | Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Christian Exodus on Upswing in Bethlehem, Elsewhere

Bethlehem may soon have few Christians left.

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK -- The exodus of Christian Arabs from Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled areas has gained momentum amidst increasing Muslim anti-Christian incitement, the Associated Press reported.

According to a story carried by www.israelnationalnews.com, the dwindling Christian Arab population in Bethlehem parallels a similar phenomenon in other Arab countries.

"Most of the Christians here are either in the process of leaving, planning to leave or thinking of leaving,” Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, told AP.

“Insecurity is deep and getting worse.” The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land said Christians could become “extinct” in the area within 60 years.

A Christian restaurant owner, Ibrahim Shomali, is selling what he can before he leaves with his wife this month for Flint, Michigan. “We Christians now feel like we are on the cross,” he said.

Bethlehem Christians flee tensions
Matthew Price of BBC News reporting from Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, said, “The little town of Bethlehem is perhaps more associated with Christianity than any other place in the world.

“But now there are fears that soon it could be home to hardly any Christians at all.

“To get into Bethlehem from Jerusalem you have to go through a checkpoint. Actually nowadays it looks more like a border crossing.

“Israeli security personnel sitting behind blast-proof-glass ask for your passport. Soldiers stand, rifles cradled in their arms.

  “The barrier goes up, and you drive in through a gap in the 30-foot high concrete wall that Israel says it has built to keep out suicide bombers.

The wall now separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem - two towns that have been linked for centuries.”

Resigned
Price continued, “A short drive down the road, in her living room, Reem Odeh brings out the drinks. Tiny cups, black Arabic-style coffee frothing at the brim.

“She sits down on the plush purple settee. Then she and her husband explain why they are about to become the latest Christians to leave Bethlehem.

“‘Everything here is difficult,’ says Fouad Odeh. ‘Like work - I stay every day two hours at the checkpoint before I get into Jerusalem. Every day two hours.’

“Reem Odeh looks resigned. ‘There's no work, the children have no place to play. We don't want to leave here and go to America, but you know...’”

They are not the only ones going
Price said that the latest figures published in early November 2006, show that Christians now account for just 15% of the population of Bethlehem. Not so long ago they were 80% of the town's population.

“Life is difficult for everyone in Bethlehem, but it is more often the Christians who have the means and the contacts abroad to be able to leave,” he said.

Few tourists
“In a small Christian workshop on one of Bethlehem's narrow lanes, a man is carving an olive wood souvenir.

“But there is no one to sell it to.

“Walk down the lane, and shop after shop is closed, locked behind light green metal shutters.

“Tourism may have returned to Israel, but few travelers attempt the journey through the Bethlehem wall.”

“Polarising”
Price added, “Publicly Christians here insist there is no friction with the Muslim majority.

“Earlier this year though the Islamist Hamas movement came to power.

“And in private some say they now dress more conservatively. There have also been fights between Christian and Muslim families.”

He said that Father Majdi Syriani says the problem is not local, but global.

“The whole world is polarizing around western Christianity and Islam,” he says. “This is a true threat, not for me but the whole world.”

“Bethlehem is the focal point. It's not because my Muslim people are threatening me. It's because the whole world is polarising. And it scares me.”

Bethlehem's Christians are not just scared, said Price, but they also feel weak and squeezed. And many are deciding that the best way to protect themselves is to leave.

“Christianity started here and should continue to remain here,” says George Ghattas, at the Latin Patriarchate.

“You would worry if the origin of that religion is basically monuments and shrines and stones, but you don't have faith believers.”

A personal note: The last time I was in Bethlehem with my wife Norma, we were held up by five gunman reputed to be from Islamic Jihad. They said they were going to kill us for being Israeli settlers. Our Arab taxi driver literally saved our lives by explaining that were from the United States, and the gunmen after some discussion finally agreed to spare our lives.

A few minutes later, we arrived at a Christian site and were then stoned by Palestinian youth.

My wife said afterwards, “The birthplace of Jesus sure is a dangerous place to visit.”

It appears that many local Christians believe that it is also a dangerous place to live!

What a sad reflection it is on the times we live in.

© 2006 ASSIST News Service, used with permission