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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 12:29 GMT
Christians quit Christ's birthplace
Palestinian Christian dressed in a Santa Claus suit in Gaza
Father Christmas could be on the way out
By BBC Middle East correspondent Roger Hardy

Christians are quitting the Palestinian territories in growing numbers, many in fear of violence.

Christian leaders have urged Christians not to emigrate - to "stand firm in faith and rooted in your land".

But year by year the Christian community in Palestine continues to dwindle.

Hanan Ashrawi,
Hanan Ashrawi: A Christian respected by Muslims and Christians

In the West Bank and Gaza, where two generations ago Palestinian Christians made up 15% of the population, they now comprise only 2%.

Only 150,000 Christians remain in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In contrast, more than 200,000 Palestinian Christians live abroad - in North and South America, in Europe, in Australia, in other parts of the Middle East.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, there are more Muslims than Christians.

Residents reckon there are now more Bethlehem Christians living as emigrants in Chile than live in the town where, according to Christian tradition, Christ was born in a manger.

Some Christian leaders fear that one day there will be no Christians left and the Holy Land will become a "museum of stones".

Losing hope

It is a sorry fate for a community with deep roots and a proud history.

The indigenous Christians of Palestine belong to 15 different denominations.

The two biggest groups are the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, with smaller numbers of Protestants, Armenians, Copts and others.

There are several reasons for the Christian exodus. In the main towns where they live - Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah - Christians are generally better educated and more prosperous than their Muslim neighbours.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat enjoys ecumenical support
Many emigrate to get better jobs and a better life for their families.

Many lose hope because of the continuing violence and the breakdown of the peace process. No one wants to bring up their children in an atmosphere of daily insecurity.

The rise of Islamic militancy is also a factor, though one that is hotly debated.

Some Palestinian researchers flatly deny that Christians are leaving out of fear of Muslim extremism.

But the growing power of Islamist groups such as Hamas has inevitably worried some Christians.

The issue is touchy. There is no history of sectarian strife among Palestinians as there has been, for example, in neighbouring Lebanon.

Painful decisions

On the contrary, over the years Muslim-Christian relations have generally been good.

Christians, like Muslims, oppose the continuing Israeli occupation of large parts of the West Bank and Gaza, and they too have suffered from it.

One of the best-known Christians, Hanan Ashrawi, is respected by Muslims and Christians alike for her articulate defence of Palestinian rights.

At a time of crisis, the concept of national unity, with Muslims and Christians united in a common struggle, is sacrosanct.

So the decision to leave is often a very painful one. Those who emigrate often send money back to their towns and villages.

They donate money to Palestinian universities, hospitals and charities. Strong ties remain between the Christian diaspora and those who stay put.

But despite the urgent appeals of community leaders, the exodus continues.

See also:

24 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat to defy Bethlehem ban
25 Dec 00 | Middle East
Sombre Christmas in Bethlehem
21 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israeli channel pulls Arafat TV game
22 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinians bury their dead
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Israeli incursion in Gaza
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