Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bethlehem's exodus

The pilgrims will be there as midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity is again broadcast live around the world this Christmas Eve -- but the town of Bethlehem is fast losing its last few year-round Christian residents.

Christians are fleeing the town of Christ's birth, and the much-reported hardship that Israel inflicts on residents of the West Bank town has little to do with it.

It's the same reality across the Arab world: rising Islamism pushes non-Muslims away.

Islamists frown on real-estate ownership by non-Muslims -- Christian, Jew or anything else.

And though the secular Palestinian Authority still controls the West Bank, the clout of groups like Hamas is growing: Even in Bethlehem, where followers of history's most famous baby once thrived, Christians are ceding the land.

Yes, ever since the PA took control of the West Bank in the early '90s, its leaders have taken care to show the world an idealized picture of Muslim-Christian solidarity.

But it's a facade -- a way to score anti-Israeli political points.

That tradition continues: Monday, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported on Palestinian Christians "trapped" in Gaza as Israel refuses to let them travel to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas with their brethren.

In fact, the Israelis decline to let people travel from Hamas-controlled Gaza for the simple reason that Hamas is still sponsoring suicide-bomb and other attacks on its civilians.

(It also threatens the secularists of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank.) Gaza residents can't go to Egypt, either (Cairo's even building a wall to keep them out), because Hamas and its parent, the Muslim Brotherhood, threaten the regime.

Back to the exodus: Fifty years ago, Christians made up 70 percent of Bethlehem's population; today, about 15 percent.

Indeed, the Christian population of the entire West Bank -- mostly Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, with Copts, Russian Orthodox, Armenians and others -- is dwindling.

But, again, the story's the same in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast. Practically the only place in the region where the Christian population is growing is in Israel.

In Bethlehem, Christians now feel besieged. Growing numbers of rural southern West Bankers from the Hebron area have moved north to Bethlehem in recent years. Many see the land as Waqf -- belonging to the Muslim nation. They increasingly buy or confiscate land -- and talk of laws to ban Christian landownership.

Seeing the trend, many Christians have decided to sell while they still can; real estate is leaving families that have owned it for generations.

Then, too, the Christians of the West Bank have traditionally been wealthier and better educated than the Muslims. When Jordan ruled the area from 1948 and 1967, Christians could get permits to travel abroad -- and emigration became part of the tradition.

Now, having relatives abroad means a chance to escape. There are frequent attacks on Christian cemeteries and churches; Christian-owned businesses are often defaced -- and government jobs have grown scarce for non-Muslims.

For all of the late Yasser Arafat's respectful talk about Christianity and its common purpose with Islam, the West Bank Christian population (not counting Jerusalem) dropped under his rule by nearly 30 percent, from 35,000 in 1997 to 25,000 in 2002. It's even lower now -- less than 8 percent of the population.

Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote recently that, before Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land in May, a Christian merchant told him jokingly, "The next time a pope comes to visit . . . he will have to bring his own priest with him [to] pray in a church because most Christians would have left by then."

A researcher of Arab and Muslim affairs, Jonathan Dahoah Halevy, says Islamists think that "soft" Christians around the world wouldn't intervene on behalf of their brethren in places like Bethlehem. Benedict's visit seems to bear that out: He criticized Israeli policies while ignoring the crucial role Islamists play in chasing Christians out of town.

So there may or may not be room at the inn when you arrive at the little town of Bethlehem, but the innkeeper is unlikely to be a Christian.


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