BETHLEHEM West Bank (Reuters) - When Pope Francis visits the birthplace of Jesus next week, he will address a dwindling population of faithful whose exodus from the Holy Land could turn the shrines of Christendom into museum pieces.
While ever growing numbers of Christian tourists pour into Bethlehem and the adjacent Jerusalem to visit the plethora of sites associated with Jesus, many Palestinian Christians hope to join a legion of relatives who have already moved out.
Christian communities have been in relative decline across the Middle East for generations, with the recent Arab revolts and the rise of radical Islam only accelerating the process.
The cradle of Christianity has not suffered the bloody mayhem seen in nearby Syria or Iraq, but still the Christians look to leave, blaming the Israeli occupation for withering their economic prospects and hobbling their freedom of movement.
Local worshippers hope Pope Francis will use his fleeting trip to Israel and the West Bank on May 25-26 to recognize their plight, but doubt that he can do much to help just weeks after the collapse of the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“We cannot expect much from the Pope ... but we need a message of justice, of peace, of encouragement, of hope for the future,” said Father Jamal Khader, a spokesman for the visit.
The statistics are stark.
In the last year of British rule over the region in 1947, some 85 percent of Bethlehem’s population was Christian, while in Jerusalem, the figure was around 19 percent. Today, those numbers are put at some 20 percent and 1.8 percent respectively.
Just 10 minutes apart by car, the two iconic cities are now divided by a hulking concrete wall which Israel erected a decade ago during a Palestinian uprising. The violence has subsided but the barrier remains, an enduring symbol of separation.
While some of the population decline can be explained by lower birth rates for Christians by comparison with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, a lot of it is down to emigration.
“Everyone wants to leave. Why? In a nutshell because the economic situation is terrible,” said Bassem Giacaman, who runs a souvenir shop next to Bethlehem’s Milk Grotto, where legend says Virgin Mary spilt some milk while feeding the baby Jesus.
Giacaman, 35, is something of a rarity in the Palestinian Territories. He actually returned home after spending more than 20 years in New Zealand to take charge of the olive wood factory and adjoining shop established here by his grandfather.
His father, mother and four siblings remain on the other side of the world and Bassem said he has a simple message for them if they try to follow in his footsteps. “I would tell my own family to go away and not to come back.”
Arab Christians living within the boundaries of Israel after its foundation in 1948 have fared much better than brethren in the adjacent occupied territories - their numbers rising from an initial 34,000 to some 125,000 today and their communities benefiting as Israel’s open economy has flourished.
There are no official population statistics in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but churchmen say they believe there has been no real growth in Christian numbers and a precipitous decline in overall percentage terms.
In the Gaza Strip, which is governed by Islamist group Hamas and lives under a rigid Israeli-Egyptian blockade, locals say the Christian population has halved to around 1,400 in 20 years.
A survey carried out in April by Palestinian researchers at Near East Consulting suggests the outlook is bleak. It showed that 62 percent of Christians in Jerusalem said they wanted to emigrate, with a third saying they knew of at least one entire family who had moved abroad in the last five years.
As with most things here, the reasons for the emigration are disputed. Israeli officials say that strife with the growing Muslim populace is a significant factor. Some Christians acknowledge occasional friction, but say the enduring Israeli occupation and its resulting woes are the overriding concern.
Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 war. It unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005 but remains the military master of the West Bank and annexed its Jerusalem gains in a move not internationally recognized.
“You need a special permit to get to Jerusalem, the economy is being suffocated, we don’t have our own airport to travel freely, the (Jewish) settlers are stealing our land,” said Anglican priest Ibrahim Nairouz.
“I fear that one day, there might no longer be a Christian community here,” he says, in a book-filled study located beneath his neat stone church in the West Bank’s third city, Nablus.
Some 4,000 Christians lived in Nablus in 1967, but their community has now shrunk to just 650.
Three of Nairouz’s siblings already live abroad - in Germany, Canada and the United States. Now his last sibling, his little sister, is set to emigrate, having seen other family members thrive away from the limitations of the West Bank.
While per capita GDP in Israel is an estimated $36,200, according to the latest data in the CIA handbook, in the surrounding Palestinian Territories it is put at just $2,900.
Palestinian Christians belong mainly to the aspiring middle classes and are highly educated. They blend easily into Western society and find it relatively easy to obtain foreign work visas - often sponsored by their ever-growing family networks.
“The Church has to find ways to give hope to people and persuade them to stay. The problem is, Christians are losing their hope,” said Nairouz, uttering a refrain heard repeatedly in conversations with Palestinian congregations.
Church leaders say they are doing what they can.
In Jerusalem, Catholics have helped build housing for those struggling to get apartments in a city where construction permits are notoriously difficult for Arab residents to obtain.
The Catholic Church also offers scholarships to local youngsters to train abroad, but with strings attached.
“They wanted to make sure we come back, so in my contract I promised to return for at least two years,” said Meera Mauge, 25, who studied dentistry in Italy for five years and is now home with her family in Jerusalem looking for a job.
Bright and motivated, she speaks five languages and has received job offers in Italy. She says she wants to live in Jerusalem, but Israeli bureaucrats are not making life easy.
She had to struggle to persuade the authorities to let her sit an exam to convert her Italian diploma into a valid work license in Israel, and has also battled not to be stripped of her residency rights in East Jerusalem and be banished.
Like the vast majority of Arabs in East Jerusalem, her family did not apply for Israeli citizenship, arguing this would legitimize the occupation and also prevent them inheriting family land in the West Bank. Because she studied in Europe, Israel said Jerusalem was no longer the center of her life.
“Jews from anywhere in the world have a right under Israeli law to come and live here. But I, who was born here, have to justify my right to remain. It is humiliating,” she said.
Bassem Giacaman can see Jerusalem from his Bethlehem shop, plus the separation barrier and settlements that fan out across the rocky hills. But since returning home from New Zealand, he has not received permission from Israel to visit Jerusalem.
He believes the Church could do more to help their flock, but also believes that the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which rules all large West Bank cities, could do much more to help businesses struggling to survive in a harsh climate.
He said corruption is rife and complained that he has to pay for his private security to keep his store safe, despite the fact that he works next to a much-visited chapel.
Asked what he misses about his old life in New Zealand, he answered without hesitation. “I miss peace, that is all.”
A fraction later, he added: “I miss the New Zealand police, the health system, a clean environment and freedom.”
Additional reporting from Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, editing by Mark Heinrich