Over the past couple decades, the Christian population in the Holy Land has been in free fall. If current trends continue—and no reason suggests they will not—one can fathom a day in the not-too-distant future when the land of Jesus’ birth will be totally deserted of Christians. What is causing this unprecedented exodus? The answer is complicated.
Last year, I traveled to Bethlehem and spent time with ordinary Palestinian Christians, hearing from them about the hardships they endure daily: hardships resulting primarily from a political limbo they exist in, brought on by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people. I got to know Atalla Ghareb, who practices the ancient craft of woodcarving, creating souvenirs for pilgrims who travel to Bethlehem. He is proud to be a Palestinian Christian from the land of Jesus himself and proud to practice the same trade as Jesus’ father Joseph. But he and his family face daily suffering as a result of the current political situation. He has seen countless neighbors and family members pack up their lives and leave, hoping for a brighter future in America or Europe.
I also spent a few days with Hanan Nesrallah, a Palestinian Christian who works for the international aid agency Catholic Relief Services. She is working with local Christian NGO’s to improve the economic prospects of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Both groups, she says, confront similar challenges as a result of the political situation.
What I heard from nearly every Palestinian Christian I met was: We feel like a forgotten people. Why don’t our fellow Christians in more powerful parts of the world know our suffering? Why do they not seem to care?
In this short video report, we let them tell you their story.
[Jeremy Zipple] If the nativity scene under your Christmas tree is stamped made in the Holy Land, there's a decent chance it came from a shop like this one in Bethlehem. That little town of Jesus' birth. And chances are it was carved by a Christian, whose ties to this land are about as ancient as the Christian faith itself.
[Atalla Ghareb] I have been working with olivewood for 45 years. I was only 16 years old when I started learning the craft.
[Zipple] Atalla Ghareb carves nativity scenes and other religious crafts, thousands a year, for Christians who come to his hometown on pilgrimage from around the world. Like Jesus himself, Atalla is from Palestine, and like Jesus' father Joseph, he's proud to earn a living as a woodworker.
[Ghareb] This is an ancient craft—since the time of our ancestors. I am proud of this—that I follow the example of St. Joseph and walk the same path.
[Zipple] Bethlehem's Christian community is one of the world's most ancient, but its future is increasingly uncertain. The past few decades Bethlehem's Christian population has been in free fall. In 1990 Christians were a majority of Bethlehem's residents. Today, they're less than 15 percent by many estimates. With thousands more fleeing the city every year, you can't help but wonder, will there be any Christians left here in the town of Christ's birth in the not too distant future.
And why are they leaving? Well, it's complicated.
[Ghareb] It is not just a little bit of suffering here. It is a lot of suffering.
[Zipple] Since 2003 Bethlehem has been circumscribed by a 26-foot military grade wall. The Israeli government constructed it, and argues that it's necessary to protect its citizens from acts of terrorism. But Palestinians say they live as prisoners in their own homes. The wall restricts movement, divides families and hampers the ability to find work.
During a 2014 visit to Bethlehem, Pope Francis paused at the wall in silent prayer. Palestinians took it as a most welcomed sign: A pope acknowledging their suffering.
[Hanan Nasrallah] Living under occupation, it's not easy. It faces a lot of challenges. You know, the separation wall that cuts family from each other. People get humiliated at checkpoints. People do not have many opportunities to improve their living standards. So, therefore, Christians who can afford to, are trying to leave this country.
[Zipple] That's Hanan Nasrallah, a Palestinian Christian who works for Catholic Relief Services. Her organization has been helping local artisans like Atalla Ghareb to develop new fair trade markets for their crafts, increasing wages, and renovating their shops to improve worker health. It's all in hopes of stemming the exodus of Bethlehem's Christians.
But it's not only Christians Hanan worries about. Palestinian Muslims face similarly daunting challenges. And the Christians see themselves in the same boat as their Muslim neighbors.
[Nasrallah] So, there is no and not more really discrimination between Muslims and Christians because both people are living under the same socio-economic and political situation.
[Zipple] Today international agencies like Catholic Relief Services work alongside local Christian groups to aid small scale Muslim farmers, like this family, the Turkmans. The goal is to introduce fair trade farming principals, which bring the prospect of new markets and higher wages.
[Basma Barham] We as Palestinians, we all the time we have to mention that were are Palestinian people looking for peace, looking to have our rights as human being. Because several times we feel that all of these things are lost with us.
[Zipple] Basma Barham is a Palestinian and a Roman Catholic, who runs a co-op of Bethlehem handi-craft workers. Her mission, above all else, is keeping the dwindling community of Palestinian Christians together.
[Barham] We are in danger. We are afraid of all these things. And we really, we really are asking for all the Christianity, all the people, the Catholic, all the Christianity people that working outside, to think about this place. Already it's a big amount of people, that are already immigrated, but we are trying as much as we can to keep the people here, to try to give them work.
[Zipple] As for the wood carver, Atalla Ghareb, no matter how difficult the situation gets, he intends to stay put in his homeland. And he has this advice for fellow Palestinians contemplating immigration.
[Ghareb] Stay in their country because this is their country. America and Europe are not their countries. They go there and they become refugees. So stay in your homeland.
[Zipple] Given the challenges, that won't be easy. From Bethlehem, I'm Jeremy Zipple, for America Media.