From the New York Times, with thanks to Anthony:
BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Dec. 20 – In the town where Christians believe Christ was born, the Christians are leaving.
Four years of violence, an economic free fall and the Israeli separation barrier have all contributed to the hardships facing Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the region.
An estimated 3,000 Christians in the Bethlehem area have moved abroad since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, according to Bernard Sabella, an associate professor of sociology at Bethlehem University who has tracked the issue. While some others put the number a bit lower, there is a consensus that 10 percent or more of the Christian population in Bethlehem and two adjoining towns has departed.
The continuing exodus has left Christians accounting for only about 21,500 of the 60,000 Palestinian residents in the area, or about 35 percent, according to Mr. Sabella. “Christians all over the world need to know this reality,” said Hanna Nasser, a Christian who is the mayor of Bethlehem. “If there is not a breakthrough in the peace process, this trend will continue. Imagine the town of Bethlehem without Christians.”
Bethlehem’s central square should be packed for Christmas celebrations, but the tourists and pilgrims stopped coming when the fighting began.
“For four years there has been no business, no way to earn a living,” said Saleh Michel, 88, a Catholic.
For decades Mr. Michel ran a recession-proof family business. His musty souvenir shop, the Bethlehem Oriental Store, is less than 10 paces from one of Christendom’s most important shrines, the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
Yet Mr. Michel rarely opens these days, and one of his adult sons has moved to Italy. “I asked him to stay,” Mr. Michel recalled. “He said, ‘Then feed me.’ He had no choice but to leave and find work elsewhere.”
The gloom stands in stark contrast to the mood five years ago. Back then, the stone square outside the Church of the Nativity was overflowing with tourists for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Palestinians were talking up the possibility of statehood in 2000. Pope John Paul II visited in March 2000, helping to fuel a surge in visitors. New hotels were rising to accommodate the crowds.
“We all had high hopes,” said Fayez Khano, 58, who carves olive wood souvenirs in a workshop dusted with flakes of blond wood.
But today Mr. Khano, a father of three, has a son and a daughter in Dublin, and another daughter who is about to move to the United States.
“We depend on our kids to send us money,” said Mr. Khano, who along with his brother has been crafting Jesus figures and manger scenes at his shop for a quarter-century. “I want to stay, because I was born here, but my wife is pushing me to leave. If the situation continues I will have to consider it.”
Arab Christians have been a relatively prosperous minority within Israel and the West Bank, generally well educated and middle class. Many have the advantage of having relatives or other connections abroad, enabling them to move with ease to the United States, Europe or Latin America.
The Christian emigrants tend to be quite successful and rarely look back. In one striking example, the two main candidates in El Salvador’s presidential election in March, the winner, Tony Saca, and the runner-up, Schafik Handal, were both descendants of Catholic Arab families that came from here.
Bethlehem was more than 90 percent Christian until the middle of the last century. Then the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, begun by Arab states in response to the founding of Israel, brought an influx of Muslim refugees to the Bethlehem area and signaled the start of a demographic shift. But what began as a steady emigration of Christians accelerated into a relative flood with the onset of violence four years ago.
The Christians, most of them Greek Orthodox or Catholic, have not been directly involved in the fighting but have suffered the consequences.
In the early days of the uprising, Muslim gunmen in the Bethlehem area took hilltop positions in Beit Jala, which is predominantly Christian. That afforded them a clear firing line at the southernmost part of Jerusalem. When the Israeli military responded, Beit Jala residents found themselves on the front lines of the conflict, and occasionally among its casualties.