In Depth Report: Why Christians are leaving Bethlehem

Christians feel like they are trapped in a cultural and religious ghetto. Even though Bethlehem is enjoying unprecedented financial & tourism growth, the city’s Christian residents are emigrating abroad in droves because of cultural & religious suffocation in a mostly Muslim city.

Persecution and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are only some of the reasons.

By Nadav Shragai



A falafel costs five to ten shekels in Bethlehem (in Tel Aviv the average is around 15 shekels). Hotel rooms are also substantially cheaper than hotel rooms in neighboring Jerusalem: only $25 per night. Even the Christmas product industry has managed to maintain low prices thanks to imports from the Far East. Many of the prayer beads, shell ornaments and carved wood figurines, on sale here for 10 to 15 shekels, are manufactured in China. But the tourists don’t care. They come in droves. In recent years, Bethlehem and its 32,000 residents have seen a financial renaissance, mainly thanks to a big tourism boom.

“A religious ghetto.” Christian clergymen attending a rally in Bethlehem. – Photo: Reuters

The city, which exported a string of deadly terror attacks into Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, is quiet now. In 2009, a million tourists visited Bethlehem, which marked the birth of Jesus this week. In 2011, the number of tourists rose to 1.5 million (about three quarters of the total number of tourists to visit the entire Palestinian Authority last year). This year, maybe a new record will be set.

Many new hotels have opened in the city. The fanciest of them is the Intercontinental, which overlooks Rachel’s Tomb on the Israeli side of the fence. Funded by the French government, a large commercial center has been built in the southeastern part of the city. A new convention center was recently opened near the area of Solomon’s Pools, where Israeli groups still hike sometimes. Recently, much to Israel’s chagrin, UNESCO listed the Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage site — the first such site in the Palestinian Authority.

But despite all that, everyday Bethlehem is a Muslim city. The Christians, who were once a majority, are continually leaving the birthplace of Jesus, though at a slower rate these days. According to the municipality, 40 percent of the residents of Bethlehem are Christian, but unofficial data suggests that the percentage is actually lower.

Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Comparative Religion Department at the Hebrew University, who recently published his book “Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State,” says that as far back as 1995, the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem was 35%. Other experts estimate that it is currently only between 20% and 25%.

“The big demographic shift was perceptible in the city as far back as 1948,” reminisces veteran journalist Danny Rubinstein, who has been studying Palestinians and writing about them for the last 45 years. “Back then, Bethlehem saw an influx of thousands of Muslim refugees from the villages in the southern part of Jerusalem, and three refugee camps were erected.”

Rubinstein believes that the Christians are continuing to emigrate from the city “because Arab nationality in general, and specifically Palestinian nationality, has become more and more of a religious thing. At one time you could walk through the streets of Bethlehem and you would only see a few women wearing headscarves. These days you rarely see a woman who isn’t covered up in traditional Muslim garb. Public life has changed entirely, and the Christians feel like they are trapped in a cultural and religious ghetto.”

The manifestations of the Christians’ sense of suffocation are varied. They include meetings between members of the two religions at the local Catholic university and forbidden love affairs between mixed couples in this bicultural hotbed. These romances produce serious crises, especially on the Muslim side, and have been known to lead to threats and at times even to violence.

The most famous incident was when the daughter of one of the senior university staff fell in love with a Muslim man, married him and converted to Islam. This marriage sparked grave problems within both families. In another instance, a young Christian woman took refuge at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem after falling in love with a Muslim man whose family threatened to kill her. The “modesty brigades” affiliated with Hamas roam the Bethlehem streets and order young Christian women to mind their dress code, and not always in a nice way.

Recently, a muezzin (the person at a mosque who calls the people to prayers) was heard saying something that was considered unacceptable even in the rapidly Islamizing Bethlehem: “After Saturday comes Sunday” — which is to say that after they’re done with the Jews, they’ll be coming after the Christians.

Add to this the ongoing conflict with Israel, especially during the Second Intifada, and the Christians’ unfortunate position between the two combating sides. The Christian religious leadership in Bethlehem has clearly favored the Palestinian side. Spearheading the anti-Israel front were former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, the Anglican bishop and the Greek archbishop. This unholy trinity displayed more Palestinian national pride than quite a few Muslim Palestinians. These three conducted themselves precisely in the same manner as many other tiny Christian minorities in the Middle East, displaying devout nationalism in efforts to prove their loyalty. That is how it was in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt, and here, too.

But even they, and Yasser Arafat who used to stress the cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the building of the Palestinian nation (Arafat himself was married to Suha, a former Christian), couldn’t stop the harassment of Christians in Bethlehem and in the surrounding area throughout the years.

Beit Jala, a Christian town on the outskirts of Bethlehem, has seen more persecution than Bethlehem itself. About ten years ago, shots were fired from Beit Jala into the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. The shooters were Muslim Bedouin, active in the Tanzim and Fatah, many of them belonging to the Tamra tribe. They established their firing positions specifically next to churches, Christian institutions and homes in the town.

In his book, Dr. Amnon Ramon writes that many Christian homes were damaged in the consequent IDF shelling. According to the book, the residents of Beit Jala begged Arafat to step in and stop the shooting, but the armed Bedouin “were outraged by the very request, so they barged into the residents’ homes and demanded an intifada ‘tax’ threatening to murder anyone who refused to pay and attacking Christians.”

Journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff describe these armed Palestinians in their book “The Seventh War: How We Won and Why We Lost the War with the Palestinians” as a “mix of street thugs, arms dealers and car thieves alongside official Fatah fighters.”

Ramon says that documents seized by Israel during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 revealed that during the Second Intifada, the Christian Palestinians, and the Christian institutions in and around Bethlehem, suffered harassment at the hands of armed militias (some of them belonging to Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. The documents presented evidence that the militias caused damage to monasteries and other religious institutions, extorted Christian businessmen, engaged in criminal activity, appropriated land and withheld legal defense from Christians whose property was stolen. The Palestinian security mechanisms ignored complaints filed by Christians. This served to speed up Christian emigration from the area.

Things are different now. But still, Christians in Bethlehem are afraid to give their names in interviews for fear of retribution. They believe that the reprieve is temporary. Their leaders tried to join forces with Israel three times since 1967. They failed twice, and only partially succeeded once. The first time was after the Six-Day War, when 550 of Bethlehem’s elders asked then-Prime Minister Levy Eshkol’s government to annex their city into Israeli territory, so that both Christian holy sites — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — would be under one nationality. The request was denied on the grounds of demographic concerns.

The second time was just before Israel withdrew from Bethlehem under the Oslo Accords. Then-Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij asked then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not to pull out of the city. He voiced grave concern for the fate of the Christians in his city. Rabin agreed to postpone the withdrawal only if the heads of the church publicly and officially make the request. The church refused, and, a month after Rabin’s assassination, Israel withdrew.

The third time was linked to the establishment of the separation fence in 2003. The fence severed Jerusalem from its natural surroundings and made travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem difficult, especially for pilgrims and tourists. The fact that many Christian institutions and much of the church’s property adjacent to the fence remained on the Palestinian side, made things even harder for the Christians. Church leaders approached the Israeli government and asked to change the route of the fence so that some of the institutions would remain on the Israeli side. This time, Israel was more accommodating and after a negotiation between the Israeli defense establishment and the Vatican, the route of the fence was moved.

Similar waves of emigration have been recorded across the Middle East in recent years. Some 100,000 Egyptian Christians left Egypt in light of events there. Tens of thousands of Christians left Iraq. Some 25,000 Christians left Beit Jala, mainly heading to South America, particularly Chile. Only 6,000 Christians still live in that town.

The latest Central Bureau of Statistics data indicates that the Christian population of Jerusalem is also dwindling. In 1946 the Christian population of Jerusalem was 31,000 (about 19% of the city’s population); by 1967, the Christian population had shrunk to 4.1% of the city’s population. Today, there are only 14,500 Christians in Jerusalem, making up less than 2% of the city’s population. Beyond the sense of being under siege as a minority within a Muslim majority, this sharp population decline is also affected by the relatively low birthrate among Arab Christians. Both Ramon and Rubinstein talk about the fear that the Christian population in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria will disappear altogether, and the holy sites will become no more than museums, without living communities.

But in the meantime, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem are trying to remedy the mistakes of their predecessors. Though Hamas is represented in the Bethlehem municipality, the mayoralty is reserved for Christians.

Both outgoing Mayor Dr. Victor Bataresh (77) and incoming Mayor Vera Baboun, affiliated with Fatah, focus their efforts on making tourism the “future of Bethlehem.” One of the means to achieve this is cleanliness. The streets of Bethlehem are cleaned three times each day! Only recently the Palestinian Authority struck an agreement with Israel’s Tourism Ministry to allow Palestinian tour guides to lead groups through Israeli territory and vice versa. The Palestinian tour guides tell their groups the story of the crucifixion of Christ and voice their wish for the removal of the fence, which currently separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. These walls are not beneficial to the residents of Bethlehem.

Professor Salim Munier, a resident of Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, has been studying the ethnic identity of the Palestinian Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority for many years. His findings indicate that the Palestinian Christian is most worried by financial issues, and is usually prompted to emigrate on financial grounds. The second most prevalent reason for emigration is peer pressure, and only in third place is the sense of cultural or religious suffocation.

“The separation fence,” says Munier, “had a very bad effect on the Christian residents whose ties with Jerusalem, in terms of family, friends, religion and community, were very strong. It was like cutting a man in half, and it caused a lot of frustration. Add to that the temptation, the family and financial foundation that already exists abroad, and the relatively higher education levels among Christians who generally speak several languages, and you see why more Christians have left the area than Muslims.”

“As of now, the emigration has nearly stopped,” he concludes. “We are very hopeful for peace. We understand fully that in the absence of an agreement, things will only get worse.”

Ramon concludes by saying that the “Israeli tendency to present the Bethlehem Christians as people who perpetually suffer at the hands of Muslims in essence exploits the Christian plight by using their suffering to attack the Palestinians. This sparks retaliations from the Palestinian side, which is constantly trying to prove how great the Christians are treated. Both sides exaggerate.”

Ramon believes that “when there is stable leadership in Bethlehem, like there is now, the Christians’ situation is fair. However, when there is chaos and the leadership is unstable, like during the intifada years, the Christians’ situation becomes very bad. Unlike Muslims, they don’t have the support of the big Muslim families, which protect the individual, and they don’t have guns, so in times of crisis their status is weakened.”

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