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Christmas Tourism Up in Bethlehem But Christians Still Troubled

ICC Note

Half a century a go 92% of residents in Bethlehem were Christians today only 35% of its population is Christian. Christians are forced to flee Bethlehem due to violence and terrorism.

By Julie Stahl

December 20, 2007Bethlehem, West Bank (CNSNews.com) – Tourism is expected to be higher than it was last Christmas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, but the increase won’t be enough to slow the exodus of local Arab Christians from the city where Jesus was born, local residents said.

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“Last year, tourism was only about 10 to 15 percent of the normal, but fortunately this year things have improved. Pilgrimage and tourism have gone up to about 60 percent of our normal. Last month we had about 80,000 tourists coming to the city,” Batarseh told journalists this week in his Bethlehem office.

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But seven years of Palestinian political unrest and violence, coupled with Israeli crackdowns on terrorism, left the city’s economy in shambles and accelerated the departure of native Christians from the city.

(Some Western and Israeli sources say that friction between Muslims and Christians is also a major factor in the exodus of the Christian population in Palestinian areas, but Palestinian Christians rarely admit it publicly.)

An estimated 35 percent of the city of Bethlehem ‘s 32,000 residents are Christian, a decrease from the estimated 92 percent in 1948. The rest are Muslim.

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A week before Christmas, there were not too many tourists in Manger Square facing the Church of the Nativity, built over the place where some Christians believe Jesus was born. Decorations were sparse, though Batarseh said the city had received $50,000 from the P.A. for decorations.

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Emigration

Some local Christians say they feel like they have been abandoned by their fellow believers in the West.

Samir Qumsieh, a Greek Orthodox Christian businessman, has been running the only local Christian television station in the Middle East for the last 11 years. Though he had nearly a million viewers in the West Bank and Jordan , he was forced to close it down at the end of October because it was losing money.

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Qumsieh said he has appealed to Christians abroad for help, but so far to no avail. He said he is most worried about Christians leaving Bethlehem . He said there may not be any Christians left in the city 15 years from now if the trend continues.

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“There is a shameful default throughout the Christian world,” he said. But if peace would prevail, it would be paradise, he said.

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Khoury said 10 families from his church of 200 members have left in the last few years, some vowing never to return.

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Khoury said he would never be among those to leave Bethlehem . For Christmas, he said he is hoping and praying that Jesus will come to dwell in the hearts and minds of the leaders of the land.

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