BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pope Francis will arrive this weekend in the land where Christianity was born — and where Christians are disappearing.
This ancient community has dwindled to around 2 percent of the region's population as economic hardship, violence and the bitter realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.
The Christian exodus, underway for decades, has reached critical levels in recent years. Emigration is a central concern to local Vatican officials, who are trying to stave off the flight with offers of jobs, housing and scholarships.
"I am sad to think that maybe the time will come in which Christianity will disappear from this land," said the Rev. Juan Solana, a Vatican envoy who oversees the Notre Dame center, a Jerusalem hotel for pilgrims that employs 150 locals, mostly Christians.
Solana said he employs Christians to encourage them "to stay here, to love this land, to be aware of their particular vocation to be the witnesses of Christianity in this land."
The Christian exodus is taking place across the Middle East. Jordan, where Pope Francis will begin his three-day trip Saturday, has thousands of Christian refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq.
For the Church, the phenomenon is particularly heartbreaking in the cradle of Christianity. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.
The pope said in a November speech that "we will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians," lamenting that they "suffer particularly from the consequences of the tensions and conflicts underway" across the region.
Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled from over 10 percent of the population on the eve of Israel's founding to between 2 and 3 percent today, according to the local Roman Catholic church.
The decline began with high Jewish immigration and Christian emigration after the 1948 war surrounding Israel's establishment, and has been abetted by continued emigration and a low birthrate among Christians who stay.
Israeli restrictions in the occupied West Bank have also persuaded Christians to leave.
The concrete and fence barrier Israel built to keep out Palestinian attackers has choked cities like Bethlehem and separated Palestinians from their farmlands. Many Palestinian Christians are prohibited from entering Jerusalem except during holidays.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has also pushed people to leave, and instances of Islamic extremism, particularly in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, have made some Christians feel unwelcome in some cases, though relations between Palestinian Christians and Muslims are generally friendly.
West Bank Christians are preparing to share some of these grievances with Pope Francis, and artisans are fashioning a cross with cement pieces of Israel's barrier for the Palestinian president to give the pope.
Elias Abumohor, a 44-year-old environmental engineer whose family was chosen to have an audience with Francis, says he will tell the pope about his lands in an area partly owned by the Vatican where Israel is planning to route its barrier.
An estimated 80 percent of Christian Palestinians live abroad, says the local Roman Catholic church, where they have had particular success in replanting themselves in Latin America, the United States and Europe.
About 38,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, 2,000 in Gaza, and 10,000 in Jerusalem, according to the local Roman Catholic church.
Israel has 130,000 Arab Christians. There are also nearly 200,000 non-native Christians in Israel, including Christians who moved from the former Soviet Union because of Jewish family ties, guest workers and African migrants.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custodian of the Roman Catholic Church's Holy Land properties, said the native Christians who have left are middle-class and well-educated, some of the most vital members of the community.
The Custodian of the Holy Land is one of the top property owners in the region. Its schools, guest houses and other institutions employ about 1,000 people, about 90 percent of them local Christians, Pizzaballa said.
The church also offers 350 scholarships a year for Christians, mostly university students, reserving two-thirds for those who commit to staying in the Holy Land, he said.
In recent decades, the Church has built 60 apartments in the West Bank city of Ramallah and rented them to Christians at a discounted rate, said the Rev. Raed Abusahlia, Ramallah's parish priest.
Last year, the Church bought land to build 72 new apartments for Christians in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, and there are similar projects in Bethlehem and in the village of Birzeit, he said.
Properties abandoned by Christian emigres over the years have become a battleground for local priests seeking to keep a Christian presence in the Holy Land.
In the West Bank, many Christians left without selling their homes and land, hoping they might one day return. In some cases, squatters — Muslims and Christians — have occupied these homes and asserted ownership of lands, said the Rev. Ibrahim Shomali, the parish priest of Bethlehem's sister city, Beit Jala.
Maha Abu Dayyeh, a Palestinian Christian, said she came back from visiting her daughter in Sweden last year to find a Muslim family had taken over her mother's old house and thrown out the furniture. She said men threatened her son if she did anything to fight it.
"It will cost us only one bullet," she said they told her son. She indicated the squatters' motives were more criminal than religious.
Shomali said he is helping Christians like Abu Dayyeh fight for their property in court. He has also recruited local Christians to purchase a half dozen abandoned homes to keep them in Christian hands.
"As a Christian community, it's important to witness Jesus Christ in his land," Shomali said. "If we keep the houses, you keep the Christians here."
Daniela Berretta contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
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