The Commentator: Strangers in their own Holy Land

The embattled Christian communities in Bethlehem and Nazareth, which even those with ambivalent attitudes towards Israel are deeply concerned about

By Inna Lazareva

For a few days this May, the little town of Bethlehem faced a publicity onslaught. Quiet alleyways and subdued streets became a bustle of activity. Seemingly every wall in the town centre was adorned with posters, signs and giant photographs, as pilgrims and press from all over the world flocked to the West Bank city to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis on his first official visit to the Holy Land.

Itineraries were scrutinised for political bias, detailed discussions over the wearing of religious insignia were held, while religious tourists and curious onlookers cheered and posed for numerous selfies.

Yet, among the Pope’s core constituency, the local Christians, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the visit.

“The Pope is not coming for us,” a shopkeeper tells me bitterly, dozens of strings of the rosary beads he sells jangling on his wrists. “He is coming for the Muslims. He gives them legitimacy, not us, by coming here. I’m going crazy here, I don’t like it. Tell me, why doesn’t the Pope give legitimacy to us?”

What possible legitimacy could be needed for the Christians who live in the town celebrated every Christmas by church congregations and choirs the world over? The reality for Christians in the West Bank today is far removed from greetings card images. For one thing, they are disappearing.

While Bethlehem remains the most populous Christian city in the West Bank, its Christian population, as in the West Bank generally, is shrinking dramatically. Only 50 years ago, Christians constituted 70 percent of Bethlehem’s population. Today they make up just 15 percent. Christians number approximately 38,000 people in the West Bank, representing 2 percent of the population.

“We used to be many. Now there are so few of us left. Everyone is trying to leave,” says Samir, another salesman in a neighbouring shop selling Orthodox icons. Worrying about the consequences of complaining about the situation, Samir declined to use his real name.

“My mother doesn’t like to walk in the street at night because her hair is uncovered, and people come up behind her and make rude comments,” he tells me. During Christmas celebrations last December, women in their twenties on a visit from London with their parents and siblings complained of being harassed by a gang of male youths as they stood watching a festive performance in Manger Square. The gang did not desist until some local women came to stand nearby and told the boys to stop.

Everyone agrees that economic hardship and the low birthrate of the Christian community are the primary causes for decline. Yet in recent years Christians in Bethlehem also complain of a growing climate of intimidation from Islamic extremists.

Read the full story here.

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