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Wall squeezes Bethlehem Christians

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Bethlehem

Palestinians pass through the gateway in the wall around Bethlehem
Israel's 8m-high concrete barrier blocks the road to Bethlehem
It must be barely 10 km from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Jesus and Mary probably took this road, as they made their way down from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.

But take the route today, and you are confronted with a new obstacle.

The barrier Israel is building around the West Bank slices through what used to be the main road. At this point it is a towering wall of concrete.

All visitors to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem must now pass through a high security checkpoint.

It is the latest factor threatening Bethlehem's role as a centre for Christian pilgrimage. Another reason members of the large Christian minority are steadily leaving.

It's very sad to come through the Wall, for our people to see the wall and see what the people are going through here
Pastor Jim Lindus
The birthplace of Jesus is celebrated in a subterranean grotto, underneath the Church of the Nativity.

Pastor Jim Lindus leads an annual pilgrimage of his parishioners from Trinity Lutheran Church in the United States.

"We have been coming here for 11 years, and we always think it is important to come to Bethlehem. But it has changed drastically," he explained. "Much of the joy has gone."

"When we first came, there were crowds here, lots of crowds here. But the security... it's very sad to come through the Wall, for our people to see the wall and see what the people are going through here."

Dwindling numbers

Visitors numbers are down to a tenth of what they were before the Palestinian uprising started five and a half years ago.

Bethlehem landowner with Israeli wall in background
Large tracts of land were taken to build the wall around Bethlehem

Huge new hotels are virtually empty of guests. Souvenir shops like the Holy Manger Store, run by Jamal Nashash, struggle to survive.

"No good politics, no good business, and no good tourism," he said. "If it's good politics, it's many tourists we have."

Jamal is a Muslim, though he will as happily sell you a Jewish menorah or a Christian nativity scene.

And the Muslims here will tell you they are suffering just as much as their Christian brothers and sisters.

But the Christian community is specially threatened.

Already they are down, in recent decades, from 95% of Bethlehem's population to around one third.

The reasons for the decline are complicated and sensitive.

Christians have a lower birth rate than Muslims. They tend to be richer and better educated - so more able to emigrate. They are feeling particularly sensitive now, with the Islamists of Hamas about to take power over the Palestinians.

It wasn't that long ago we were having almost daily suicide bombings... Now we've got that number right down
Mark Regev, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman

But the barrier is another reason for them to leave.

Jamal Salman is one of a number of Christian landowners who has seen a substantial chunk of his land taken for the barrier.

Along his land, it is a massive fence that runs a few metres from the last house in the town.

As we walked along it, he warned me of the bleak prospects for the Christian community in Bethlehem.

"I think maybe within maybe 30 or 40 years, Christians in Bethlehem will be a very small minority... Bethlehem should have Christians living in it."

Strong support

Jewish pilgrims are suffering as well. One of their holiest sites, Rachel's tomb, is on the edge of the town.

For Israelis, visiting used to be an easy routine. Now they board an armoured bus with army escort.

Entrance to Jerusalem via the barrier
Most Israelis support the building of the barrier

Eventually the wall will snake around the shrine, enabling better access for Israelis. That did not satisfy any of the Jewish pilgrims I spoke to.

Nevertheless, most Israelis do strongly support the building of the barrier, which the Israeli government insists is essential for security.

"The barrier is a very effective means of keeping suicide bombers out of Israel, out of our cities, out of our neighbourhoods," said foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

"You will remember it wasn't that long ago we were having almost daily suicide bombings in this country. Now we've got that number right down."

The Christians here feel beleaguered. They feel the world does not understand their plight. Some of them blame fellow Christians overseas for not doing enough on their behalf.

Reverend Mitri Raheb runs the International Centre of Bethlehem.

"I think personally that it is a shame that the international Christian community is silent towards what is happening to Bethlehem today," he told me.

"The international Christian community is a bit cowardly when it comes to Israel. These are harsh words but I think some people have to hear it."



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