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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 16:48 GMT
Holy Land's Christians under pressure
The Sea of Galilee: The Pope plans to hold mass at holy shrine nearby
The Pope plans to hold mass near the Sea of Galilee
By Paul Adams in Jerusalem

The Holy Land - the birthplace of Christianity. It is a landscape which is seemingly unchanged.

Everywhere you turn, there is a stone or a tree old enough to have stood there 2,000 years ago.

This place invites you to peer down through layers of history and religion and to touch the very past.

Countless Christian pilgrims come here every year to walk where Jesus walked and to see where he lived and died.

Via Dolorosa:
Via Dolorosa: "The land where Christianity started"
However, what about the Palestinian Christians who live here?

In 1948, before the State of Israel came into existence, there were almost 150,000 Christians - or about 7.5% of the population - in what was then Palestine.

Today, Christians number 180,000, but form less than 2% of Israel's population and a similarly small proportion of those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They come here as if they are walking through a Christian Walt Disney land

Mitri Raheb
It has got to the point where visitors can almost be forgiven for not realising there is such a thing as a Palestinian Christian.

"They know nothing about the living Christian community," says Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran priest in Bethlehem.

"They come here as if they are walking through a Christian Walt Disney land or a theme park. I don't see for me at least any role in a theme park."

For decades, Mr Raheb says, Christians have turned their backs on the political and economic turbulence of the Holy Land and looked for solutions abroad.

"This is really the land where Christianity started," he says. "I think it would be a shame if Christianity will cease to exist in the land of its origin."

Moral support

The Pope: Morale boost
The Pope: Morale boost
Church leaders see the Pope's visit as a badly needed boost to flagging Christian morale.

On Wednesday, he celebrates mass in the centre of Bethlehem and visits the nearby refugee camp of Dehaishe, a potent symbol of Palestinian dispossession.

We don't think that when the Pope leaves for Rome, all our problems will be resolved

Father Maroun Lahham, Beit Jala's Latin Seminary
Local people express the hope that the Pope will lend support to their national aspirations and take heart from the Vatican's warm relations with the Palestinian leadership.

However, church officials warn against exaggerated expectations.

"You know the Pope doesn't make miracles," says Father Maroun Lahham, of Beit Jala's Latin Seminary, near Bethlehem.

"So we don't think that when the Pope leaves for Rome, all our problems will be resolved. What we expect from the Pope is moral and spiritual support."

Decendants of Jesus' flock

Even though I don't shepherd any fields, I feel that I have an obligation to shepherd the land and the Christian shrines

Mazen Badra, Palestinian Christian
Also adjoining Bethlehem is the village of Beit Sahur, a place of caves and trees which claims to be the field where shepherds first learned of Christ's birth.

Mazen Badra, a Palestinian management consultant, says the shepherds were his ancestors.

"This is what my father told me, and this is what his father told him," he says.

"I remember my grandfather telling us stories about how their ancestors lived here."

"I think this helped me a lot in being very close to the land, and in staying here and not leaving the country."

"Even though I don't shepherd any fields, I feel that I have an obligation to shepherd the land and the Christian shrines."

Beit Sahur remains predominantly Christian. However, elsewhere, the demographic balance is shifting, leaving the Christians exposed and vulnerable.

Tensions rise in Nazareth

Muslims pray at site of planned mosque in Nazareth
Muslims pray at the site of a planned mosque in Nazareth
Nowhere more so than in the mixed Christian-Muslim city of Nazareth, in northern Israel.

In November, the city's Muslims celebrated wildly as the cornerstone of a new mosque was laid.

However, the mosque is situated close to the church where the angel is thought to have told the Virgin Mary to expect a child.

Christian leaders closed almost all holy places in protest.

Inside the church, worshippers escape from the political and religious dispute that swirls around them.

However, the anguish generated by this sorry affair strikes a deeper note.

Caught between the rock of Israel - a Jewish state - and the hard place of Islamic fundamentalism, Christians feel besieged.

Mitri Raheb says the churches themselves are partly to blame.

"The churches here didn't invest much in spirituality," he says regretfully.

"There is a certain kind of spirituality. It's nice and it's 2,000 years old, but is it up to date in the sense of giving people a vision, power, strength and a reason to stay? I'm afraid not."

However, for now, Christians must cope in an uneasy environment.

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