In Holy Land, Christians a community in decline

Wed Oct 20, 2010 2:02pm EDT
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By Tom Perry

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank (Reuters) - In the land where Jesus lived, Christians say their dwindling numbers are turning churches from places of worship into museums.

And when Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the places of Christ's birth, death and resurrection, they find them divided by a concrete wall.

Members of the Abu al-Zulaf family, Palestinian Christians, have left the hills and olive groves of their village near Bethlehem for Sweden and the United States, seeking a better life than that on offer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Pope Benedict, worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops this month to discuss how to preserve Christianity's oldest communities in the Middle East.

The special assembly considered a Vatican document which said Christian emigration is "particularly prevalent because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability in the Middle East."

Ayman Abu al-Zulaf, 41, moved to France in 1998. But he returned to Beit Sahour, the village where he was born, a year later. "I needed to be here, not in France," he said.

"Without Christians, the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, has no value."

That's his message to Christian pilgrims he meets through his work as a tour guide. "Christians have a very major mission here in Palestine. We are the bridge to the West," he said.   Continued...