Christians in the Holy Land have become a rare breed as they opt for the West

TAYBEH, WEST BANK - The domes and towers of three churches rise above the rooftops in Taybeh, witness to a Christian tradition dating from the days of, Jesus.

It is picture postcard Holy Land - a Palestinian hill village in the West Bank in the sights and sounds of which can sometimes evoke a sense of what this rocky landscape with its terraced olive groves, sheep and goats might have been like 2,000 years ago.

But the Holy Land is steadily emptying of Christians. When Pope John Paul II makes his historic pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus next week, he will find a community struggling to maintain a Christian life with fewer and fewer believers.

"Our main fear is that the Christian holy places will become Museums" said Wadi' Abu Nassar, executive director of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land.

'Without the Christians, the churches will have symbolic meaning only" he said.

Christians now make up only 2% of the more than nine million inhabitants of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, down from around 10% of the population be the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Israel's overwhelming majority is Jewish, and Islam is the dominant religion in Palestinian society.

Church leaders fear their flock will all but disappear by the next century unless action is taken to halt the exodus.

"The Pope is coming to support the local Christians;" said Mr. Abu Nasser. "Of course, in his own words he will tell them "Please stay in the Holy Land."

Tabybeh is one of the last bastions of Christianity, but It too has fallen prey over the decades to emigration - powered at various points by conflict and the search for a better life.

Some 8,000 villagers, all Christians, lived in Taybeh in 1948. Now there are only 1,500 Christians, and Muslim families have begun moving into the area.

The Christians have an inner feeling they are an oppressed minority. When they go to the United States where everyone else is Christian, they don't feel threatened and integrate easily," said Fouad Tbye', the mayor of Taybeh.

While Taybeh still maintains a strong Christian presence, the towns of Christ's birth, boyhood and death in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem - now have fewer and fewer Christians.

Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem in the West Bank and Nazareth, Israel's biggest Arab city, have majority Muslim populations. And in Jerusalem, where the Christian population stood at 25% in 1922, shrank to 13% after 1948 and is now just 1.2%, Jews and Muslims are the clear majorities.

Christian Arabs, often the educated, wealthier class in Palestinian society, began emigrating in the 1920s. They left British Mandate Palestine in search of a better life, some to Europe but the bulk to the United States and Latin America.

Some 60% of the remaining Christian population fled or was driven out during the 1948 War of Independence that involved the dispersion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Further waves followed with the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian intifada,, or uprising, against Israeli military occupation that began in 1987 and ended in 1993 with the Oslo interim peace accords.

The emergence of the militant Islamic movement Hamas during the uprising, lack of economic opportunity and disillusionment with self-rule under Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority chairman since Oslo have also taken a toll.

"Some [Christians] naively said Hamas started with killing the Jews, so our turn will come next;" Mr. Abu Nassar said.

Archbishop Lutfi Lahham, head of the Greek Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said neither racism nor religious intolerance were the primary reasons for the Christians' relocation.

"The main reason is political and economic instability. Therefore, achieving peace, stability, security and creating jobs can stop this emigration," Mr. Lahham said.

He said Christians in Israel had not emigrated to the same extent as those from Palestinian areas in recent years, largely because of better economic and social conditions.

Palestinian Christians complain that the churches have done little if anything to entice them to stay.





But Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said the Church had started a number of housing projects for young people and was trying to create jobs to help convince them to stay.

Mr. AbuNassar said Mr. Arafat, whose wife, Suha, Is Christian-born, has good relations with the Christians in areas under his control and has tried to protect their interests.

Relations with Israel, however have been prey to tension.

"In Israel, Christians suffer like the rest of the Arabs suffer from inequality. Israel looks at the Christian minority as small and divided, and we have the feeling Israel treats them with lack of respect" Mr. Abu Nassar said.

Last year, Israel angered the Vatican by approving plans by the Islamic Movement to build a mosque in Nazareth near the Basilica of the Annunciation, one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

Churches of all denominations throughout the country shut for two days in protest, and the Vatican accused Israel of stoking relgious tension. The furor has since subsided, with the mosque rescheduled for construction until - after the Pope visits Nazareth next Saturday.

Taybeh, near the Palestinian ruled town of Ramallah, is one place that is hoping to turn exodus into a return. It is home to a successful brewery that produces the only Palestinian beer, which now sells only in the West Bank but also Israel and some Arab and European states.

Its owner, Nadim Khoury, is one of very few Christians who left a successful life in the United Stated to return tb his roots after the 1993 Oslo accords.

"My kids were born in Boston in America, but I returned and want them to say they are Palestinians and not Americans, and be proud of it," said Mr. Khoury.

"I believe when the peace process moves forward and we have real peace, people will start coming back."

"Copyright Reuters Limited 2000" (used with permission - Copyright permission granted to J. Stewart A. LeForte, KHS)
The EOHSJ wishes to acknowledge its appreciation Reuters Limited for permission to use this copyrighted article. This article appeared in The National Post on March 17, 2000.

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