BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Despairing of life under Israeli occupation, many Palestinian Christians are moving abroad, threatening their ancient links to Bethlehem and the land where Jesus was born.
“There is a real fear that 50 years down the road, the Holy Land will be without Christians,” said Mitri Raheb, 45-year-old pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
Pressures on majority Muslims are just as daunting -- and many of them also leave -- but dwindling Christian communities look more precarious as the young and dynamic pull up roots.
Christians have migrated from Bethlehem and nearby Beit Jala and Beit Sahour for over a century, mainly to Latin America, the United States and Canada, to escape successive wars and crises.
Bethlehem governor Salah al-Tamari said there was no way of tracking accurately how many Christians and Muslims had left since the eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2000.
“There is no business, no freedom of movement,” he said. “We depend on tourism, which is being demolished. Sometimes we receive 1,500 tourists a day but none of them stay the night. They visit the Nativity Church and leave, so we don’t benefit.”
A towering concrete wall is closing in on Bethlehem as part of a barrier that Israel is erecting, which it calls a defense against suicide bombers from the occupied West Bank. Much of it has been built on Palestinian land.
“Once it’s finished there will be only three gates leading in and out of Bethlehem,” said Raheb. “Bethlehem will basically be a four-square-mile (10-square-km) open prison.”
“This wall has separated many people from each other,” said Hiyam Abu Dayyeh, a Christian social worker. “What kind of life is this if you can’t feel free or move in your own country?”
Now unemployed, she hopes to leave Beit Jala for Germany, which she visited often when she was working for the church.
“Many people are without work and without hope,” she said. “People are completely exhausted. If it stays like this, Palestine will be a big psychiatric hospital.”
About 50,000 Christians live in the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war -- east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another 110,00 reside in Israel.
The aid-dependent Palestinian economy took a devastating hit when international donors decided to boycott a Hamas government formed after the Islamists won an election in January 2006.
Violent infighting between Hamas and the once-dominant Fatah faction has driven Palestinians closer to breaking point.
Two-thirds of the population now live in poverty, according to the British charity Oxfam, with more than half unable to meet their families’ daily food requirements without assistance.
Palestinian Christians are generally better off than other segments of society, but they too have felt the pinch.
“We used to be six people working in the restaurant and we were always busy. Now we are two and we sit here doing nothing,” said Maher Rabie, who runs a small pizzeria in Beit Jala.
He took a loss of 30,000 shekels ($7,000) last year to keep it open. He says he might return to the United States, where he lived for 12 years, if the summer does not bring better times.
“Actually we don’t have an economy any more. It’s finished,” he said. “The last five years were hell on earth. Sometimes we say if we go to hell in future, we already know what it’s like.”
Rabie and his wife Rania have three boys in school aged 8, 14 and 16. “We think of what kind of future we can provide for them if this situation persists,” the 47-year-old father said.
Christian leaders say they face no religious persecution from the Palestinian Muslim majority or from Israel.
Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian sociologist at Bethlehem University, estimates that 50 to 75 Christian families a year are leaving Jerusalem or the West Bank for new lives abroad, down from a peak of 200 to 250 families in 2002 and 2003.
He said most cited similar motives to Muslim migrants -- political conditions, unemployment and lawlessness, although discomfort with rising Muslim militancy was a factor for some.
“As Christians we want to be part of this society,” he said, pointing to the cultural richness, variety and ancient roots of the church communities living in the cradle of Christianity.
The median age of Palestinian Christians is now 37, against 19 in the general population. “If our young people leave, we are in a disaster,” Sabella said.
Many Christians have languages, educational skills, money and family links abroad -- factors that make migration easier. But church leaders want to anchor them in their homeland.
“We are asking the world to help Palestinian Christians stay in their country,” said Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, pleading for assistance with education, job creation and housing and with Christian institutions that could serve Palestinians in general.
Christian entrepreneurs who returned from lives in exile in the 1990s -- when it seemed that the Oslo interim accords with Israel might bring peace, prosperity and Palestinian statehood -- are now losing hope.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher every day,” said Elias Samaan, a 45-year-old who set up a carpentry business after moving to Beit Jala from the United States in 1992.
“We’re really thinking about leaving again, leaving everything -- our house, our work, our business, our land.”