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ICC Note: As the date approaches for Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East, the Christian population continues to dwindle in the Middle East. The Christian population has fallen to just 2% in Israel due to the downtrodden economy, violence, and persecution. As the Pope’s visit draws near and attention is drawn to Christians in the region, many Vatican officials in the region are worried the Christian population will disappear entirely from the Middle East.

By Daniel Estrin and Daniela Berretta

05/21/2014 Egypt (Associated Press) – Pope Francis will arrive this weekend in the land where Christianity was born — and where Christians are disappearing.

This ancient community has dwindled to around 2 percent of the region’s population as economic hardship, violence and the bitter realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.

The Christian exodus, underway for decades, has reached critical levels in recent years. Emigration is a central concern to local Vatican officials, who are trying to stave off the flight with offers of jobs, housing and scholarships.

“I am sad to think that maybe the time will come in which Christianity will disappear from this land,” said the Rev. Juan Solana, a Vatican envoy who oversees the Notre Dame center, a Jerusalem hotel for pilgrims that employs 150 locals, mostly Christians.

Solana said he employs Christians to encourage them “to stay here, to love this land, to be aware of their particular vocation to be the witnesses of Christianity in this land.”

The Christian exodus is taking place across the Middle East. Jordan, where Pope Francis will begin his three-day trip Saturday, has thousands of Christian refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq.

For the Church, the phenomenon is particularly heartbreaking in the cradle of Christianity. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.

The pope said in a November speech that “we will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians,” lamenting that they “suffer particularly from the consequences of the tensions and conflicts underway” across the region.

Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled from over 10 percent of the population on the eve of Israel’s founding to between 2 and 3 percent today, according to the local Roman Catholic Church.

The decline began with high Jewish immigration and Christian emigration after the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment, and has been abetted by continued emigration and a low birthrate among Christians who stay.

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