The Jesuit magazine America recently reported that Arab Christians are fleeing in droves from Bethlehem, the hallowed city of Jesus Christ’s birth. In 1990, Christians made up a majority of the city’s residents; today they make up only about 15%. “With thousands more fleeing the city every year,” reports America’s correspondent Jeremy Zipple, “you can’t help but wonder, will there be any Christians left here…in the not too distant future?”
Zipple’s question is rhetorical. He clearly believes that Christianity in Bethlehem may be nearing its end.
But why? Why are Christians fleeing?
At first Zipple says “it’s complicated.” But he goes on to list one reason, and one reason only: “Since 2003 Bethlehem has been circumscribed by a 26-foot military grade wall.”
Zipple is, of course, referring to the separation barrier that was constructed by Israel during the Second Intifada to keep out suicide bombers who tried to cross from the West Bank into Israel. Although the vast majority of the barrier is a chain link fence, in Bethlehem and a few other metropolitan areas it becomes a tremendous gray wall. Since its construction, the barrier has become the international symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israel.
“[T]he separation wall…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,” says interviewee Hanan Nasrallah, a Palestinian employee of Catholic Relief Services.
Nasrallah’s calculation is simple: Israel built a wall; the wall makes life difficult; therefore, Palestinian Christians are leaving.
According to Nasrallah, both Palestinian Christians and Muslims face the same challenges. It is only the Jewish occupation that is causing them both misery.
And yet the Muslim population of Bethlehem is growing. Muslims, in fact, are not fleeing. They are arriving—in large numbers.
Surely there is some significance in this disparity between the two populations. Why is the Muslim sector of Bethlehem growing while the Christian sector is falling? Both face the same exact set of circumstances. Could it be that this disparity tells the true story?
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