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Misery tempts Palestinian Christians to flee

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
2007-03-12 Bethlehem, West Bank (for the full story, go to 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 .
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.
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.