The sad exodus of Christians from the birthplace of Jesus

Impoverished by Israel's economic squeeze and persecuted by the Muslim majority, Christians are deserting Bethlehem

The morning service at the Latin church in Beit Jala was packed, the enthusiastic congregation spanning generations filling the aisles and spilling out of the door, a powerful testimony of belief and faith. But, for many of the worshippers in the suburb of Bethlehem the driving wish was to secure their futures abroad, joining a Christian exodus from the land of the Bible.

According to Victor Batarseh, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, the proportion of Christians here has slumped from 92 per cent in 1948 to 40 per cent. "It is a sad fact, but it remains a fact, that a lot of Christians are leaving," he says. One charge is that Muslims have been taking over Christian lands with the Palestinian authorities turning a blind eye.

Bethlehem has also been badly affected by Israel's separation barrier causing widespread economic hardship among both Muslims and Christians. Yusuf Nassir 57, is looking for a way to emigrate. "The problem is that we are a minority and minorities always suffer in times like these. My house was attacked [by Muslims] over nothing. There was a dispute between a Muslim and a Christian boy, this turned into a communal fight and then around 70 men turned on us. My sister got injured. She said to me 'you must leave for the safety of your family', but finding the money is not easy," he says. "I have also had Israeli soldiers fire at me, once when I was driving a car. The bullet missed me by about 25 centimeters.

"But it is the wall which has destroyed my business. I now owe $120,000 in back rent. I have had to sack staff, and other businesses around here have had to do the same. This just adds to the unemployment and social problems here."

Nicola Lolas, a 38-year-old hairdresser, has left for the US with his wife, Marian, 30. He says: "What we are seeing now is organised extortion from some Muslims. Maybe these people are small in numbers but the effect is very bad. I know of two cases, one involving a doctor and another a hairdresser, where women from Muslim families have gone along as a patient and then accused them of improper behaviour because the men have touched them.

"In each case they have been forced to pay compensation even though they have done nothing wrong. I am a hairdresser and it is only a matter of time before they try something like that with me. I would rather use my life savings to try a new life in America than give it to these people."

The family travelled to California on tourist visas, but Mr Lolas hopes to get a "green card", which would allow him to take up a job. Mrs Lolas says: "The local economy is in bad trouble because of the wall and it also affects other things in our lives. For instance I can't even take my children to the seaside because of the checkpoints, and we have the same problems going even to Jerusalem. I have also noticed that as an uncovered Christian woman I get insulted a lot more by Muslim men than I used to."

At the Latin Church, Father Ibrahim stresses that they are wrong to blame the entire Muslim community for the actions of a few. Some of the Muslim families taking Christian lands, he points out, have lost their own homes in Hebron, a stronghold of hardline Jewish settlers. "These divisions are really damaging for our society," he says. "But there are problems which need to be resolved. More and more people are leaving. It will be a tragedy if the Christian community disappeared from the Holy Land."

But there is a ray of hope that the exodus can be stemmed. According to the Mayor, Mr Batarseh, the one factor that could arrest it is a pick-up in tourism; he says that 1.5 million pilgrims have already visited the city in 2008 – easily the best year since the beginning of the intifada in 2000. It has helped to bring unemployment down from 50 to 20 per cent, and filled hotels to, or near, their capacity of 5,000 rooms for this Christmas.

Mr Batarseh said yesterday that fewer Christians are thinking of leaving the city "due to the new situation in Bethlehem with the improvement in tourism and the slight improvement in the economy". The Mayor even says that some families are trying to return, but he fears that the Israeli bureaucracy will make it difficult for them to re-enter the Holy Land.

Fr Ibrahim, who insists the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is the main factor driving Christians away, is less optimistic about the reasons, arguing that it is because those Christians with enough money to leave have done so, leaving the poorest to stay behind. Nor is Mr Batarseh saying that he is remotely happy with the city's wider economy, reeling off a list of negative factors: the occupation; the loss of agricultural land swallowed by neighbouring Jewish settlements; and the barrier encircling much of the city – "If it was there for security it wouldn't have been built inside Palestinian areas"; and Israel's denial of permits to most of Bethlehem's citizens who want to work in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless the mood of –admittedly guarded – encouragement among Christian hoteliers and shopkeepers was as unmistakable as the chill winter breeze cutting through the city's Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity yesterday. At the rebuilt Paradise Hotel, which was occupied by Israeli troops for 22 days and was closed from 2002 to 2006, the Christian owner, Basil Abu Aita, 70, says that he has managed to fill his 177 completed rooms over the holiday, most with Israeli-Arab Christians; he added that reservations for next year are good. But the hotelier echoes nearly every Bethlehem businessman when he says: "If the occupation of what the Israelis took in 1967 ended most of our problems would be solved."

Indeed Mr Bartaseh argues that up to six times as many visitors might stay in Bethlehem if the city had the capacity and the long delays for visitors leaving through the Gilo checkpoint did not deter some from staying overnight. Many visitors are day trippers staying in the warmer climes of the Egyptian Sinai, such as the Theunissen family from Belgium. They might come back for longer in future, says Susan Theunissen, an architect. After all, she says: "This is where our culture started."

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