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ICC Note: In the middle of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East, his visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem attracted one of the largest crowds the church has ever seen. Amidst the exodus of Christians in the region, many came from different areas of Israel to hear the Pope during his papal visit on Sunday.

By: Karl Vick

05/25/14 Israel (Time) – Every space in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was filled for the papal visit on Sunday morning, but with the population of Palestinian Catholics dwindling, many Filipino and Indian guest workers made up the numbers

As much as the half-empty soccer stadium where Pope Francis gave a Mass in Jordan on Saturday, the Sunday morning scene at Bethlehem’s Manger Square spoke volumes about the declining population of Christians in the very place the faith was born.

Unlike the scene in Amman, where half of the seats in a 30,000-seat stadium went unfilled, there were no empty spaces in the plaza–some 9,000 congregants turned out in front the Church of the Nativity, built above the cave where the baby Jesus was said to have been laid in a manger.

But relatively few in the crowd were themselves born in the Holy Land. Laced heavily among the hardy native Palestinian Catholics were guest workers from India and the Philippines working in Israel, asylum seekers from Sudan, American tourists, pilgrims from Ghana, and a smattering of Palestinian Christians from other denominations.

Christians account for only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank’s 2.5 million population, and a similar proportion of Israel, where every fifth citizen is Palestinian. Historically, according to Hanna A. Amirah, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches in the Palestinian Authority, Christians accounted for every tenth resident in the region.

“We are few,” said Layla Zaid, sitting with her sister Nadia in the shade of the gift shop arcade off the square as Pope Francis entered. Greek Orthodox both, they had traveled by bus from the West Bank city of Ramallah with 150 others, including Romanian Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. “No problem,” Nadia says. “It’s for Christians.”

But there are fewer and fewer of them. Bethlehem itself is mostly Muslim today, the Christian population dwindling to perhaps 15 percent of the district. In the Gaza Strip, the Christian population is down to an estimated 1,250 in a population of 1.7 million. Half of them got permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank, and about 50 were clustered in Manger Square, holding a homemade sign reading: “With Great Love & Happiness GAZA Receives our Pope”

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