Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 13:01 UK

Mixed emotions for Pope in Bethlehem

Graffiti on a wall at the Aida refuge camp, 12/05
Expectations are high for the Pope's visit to Aida refugee camp

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Bethlehem

Jonny Rahil is watching the Pope saying prayers on his television.

Jonny, who turned 70 three days ago, was given two invitations to go to see Pope Benedict XVI, but the prospect of the heat and the bright sunlight put him off.

Saleem Amarna
They don't want the Pope to be seen close to the wall with the world's journalists here
Saleem Amarna
Building contractor

He and his family have lived in Bethlehem for 60 years, during which time he says the numbers of Christians have "enormously decreased".

He says conditions are difficult for everyone in the West Bank because of the Israeli partition walls.

He says the walls are hindering commerce, stopping people travelling to the holy places in Jerusalem and stopping relatives from visiting.

Israel says the system of barriers it is building around the West Bank, sometimes cutting deep into occupied territory, is a security measure, although Palestinians call it a land grab.

Jonny says the exodus has affected members of the Christian population in particular. He says they have left in greater numbers than Muslims because they are "learned people".

Palestinian church in Bethlehem
Palestinian territories
50,000-83,000 Christians make up 1.2 - 2.2% of population
2,000 in Gaza (pop 1.5m)
150,000 Christians make up 2.1% of population (120,000 Arab, others mainly Russian immigrants)
Palestinian Diaspora
Half a million Christians, estimated at 6% of total
Decline in Israel/Palestinian territories:
Difficult to track, but 1940s estimates put Christian pop at 7-9% of population of British mandate Palestine
Reasons for decline: Low birth rates, emigration due to conflict, economic issues and living as "minority within a minority"
Sources: Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics; Bethlehem Univ; World Christian Database

"Here they don't have the opportunity to engage the posts they deserve," he says.

"They have to leave the country to make a decent living and have a decent life."

Privately, some Christians in Bethlehem say another factor sometimes motivates their decision to leave - concern about the rise of radical Islam - but they are unwilling to put such views on the record.

Jonny says that a quarter of his family now live outside the West Bank - in Canada, Jordan and the Gulf states.

"It's very tragic. Three days ago it was my birthday. I very much wished all the members of my family could share in the day," he says.

"We live in a very difficult situation."

Concrete barrier

A 20-minute walk away from Jonny Rahil's shop is the Aida refugee camp, where the Pope is due to put in an appearance after celebrating Mass in Manger Square.

Saleem Amarna is helping to string a sign across the road saying: "Welcome Pope to Aida camp."

Saleem is the main contractor for what had been planned as the stage for the Pope - right next to the separation barrier surrounding one side of the camp with a nine-metre concrete wall.

He and his colleagues were told weeks ago by the Israeli authorities that they would not be able to use that stage.

A smaller stage has been erected for the Pope just across the street in a school instead.

Jonny Rahel
Jonny Rahil is hoping for a solution to the conflict, but is not optimistic

Despite this, Saleem says the stage next to the concrete wall was finished last night.

He said it was important to carry on building because: "This is such a great event, the size of the stage was more important than any order from the [Israeli] administration.

"They don't want the Pope to be seen close to the wall with the world's journalists here because this would be a disastrous thing for Israel."

And will the Pope's visit make any difference? Is a Palestinian state any closer now?

Back in his clothes shop, Jonny Rahil laughs.

"Always I hope one day peace will come, to live in our state side by side with Israelis," the 70-year-old says. "Let's meet again in 50 years."

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