Why are Christians deserting the Holy Land?

weeks ago a friend came home with a treasure he had found in the
archives of the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem: a 1907 photograph of the
neighborhood I live in. The shot is taken from the Damascus gate, a
beautiful entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem looking towards
Musrara, where I live. He explained that it was possible to date the
image because a nearby school was built in that year and the school is
being completed in the photo. We also discovered that work was also
being done on the roof of my house. The whole neighborhood seems to be
taking shape at that time: a few scattered houses springing up among
the mostly empty fields.

The scene certainly has changed dramatically over the years -- not just
the houses but the people living in them. Musrara was known as a
Christian place at the beginning of the century. Nowadays, I doubt
whether there are any Christians left, apart from some nuns who run a
school a little further down the street. The same has happened with
other neighborhoods. Once flourishing Christian homes have been
transformed into embassies, art galleries and even museums. There is a
feeling of decay of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, and sadly,
it is not just a feeling.

In 1910 Jerusalem had a population of
12,900 Christians representing 18 per cent of the total population of
the city. In year 2000 there were 14,200 representing just 2 per cent.
The decline is sharp indeed. It could be argued that the Arab
population as a whole has declined because of strong Jewish
immigration. However, Muslims have increased their presence in the city
from 17 per cent to 30 per cent over the same period of time. Jerusalem
is not alone. Bethlehem has gone from being an 80 per cent Christian
town in 1948 to a 20 per cent Christian town today. Again, no Jews live
there, so they do not figure in the calculations.

We could go on analyzing numbers from other cities. The conclusion
would be the same: the Christian presence in the region is in danger of
becoming something purely symbolic. Christian bishops are worried about
it. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, has repeatedly
urged Christians to make an effort to remain in the Holy Land despite
all the objective difficulties.

Emigration is a widespread
phenomenon, especially in times of hardship. However, Christian
emigration is much more common. This has several explanations. The
first is that emigration leads to more emigration. It is difficult to
find a Christian Palestinian with no relatives in another country.
Given the possibility of a helping hand in a new country, the
emigration option becomes much more feasible. It is also much easier
for a Christian to go to the West than for a Muslim. No matter how
secularised Europe or America might be, Christians fare better there
than Muslims.

A second factor is the ongoing struggle in the
country: there are two sides in the conflict and Christians are not
part of either. They are stuck in the middle. Many of my Christian Arab
friends would assert that I am absolutely mistaken about this, but to
make me feel better they will add politely that foreigners are prone to
making this mistake. “We have suffered exactly as Muslims have; our
land, our homes have also been taken away from us. There is no
difference whatsoever between Muslims and us. Look at Palestinian
leaders like George Habash; he is a Christian.”

All true, but the fact is that more Christians than Muslims emigrate
from Palestine, and -- though not many say it aloud -- relations
between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land are frosty. Recently a
friend of mine summed this up by saying “Nazareth is not the same
anymore. Muslims have taken over.” I do not know if that is based on
fact, or if it is justified, but the feeling is there. And if words
like these are whispered in Nazareth, where things are peaceful and
there is some prosperity, imagine what Christians think in Bethlehem
where the situation is far worse.

As I said, Christian authorities are aware of the problem. They
encourage people to stay and provide material help, hoping that this
will help people to build a better future. Education has played a role:
for decades religious orders have set up schools and sent people to
help in the education of Christians. This has paid off. Christian
schools are definitely the best ones in the Arab sector -- and that’s
why Muslims go there too. The result is that the socio-economic level
of Christians is the highest among the Arab population. There are also
projects run by the Custody of the Holy Land that provide housing and
employment for Christian families. Yet no matter what you do,
emigration is still there kicking back. Christians leave at a greater
rate because they are better prepared, thanks to their educational
attainments and relative wealth. Therein lies the paradox: the more you
help Palestinian Christians, the more you help them leave.

So far
we’ve been discussing emigration, as everybody here does. It is both a
popular topic and a very effective means to ask for foreign help. If
you appeal to charitable institutions and say that you want to stop
Christians leaving you get swift answers. There is a kind of special
aura around a Christian living in the Holy Land. However a big part of
problem lies in something much less dramatic: the Christian birth rate.
Christians have fewer children than any other ethnic or religious group
in the Middle East. It happens in Lebanon; it happens in the
Palestinian Territories; and it happens in Israel.

The gap between
the fertility rates of Christians and Muslims is striking. In 2003 the
average Christian woman had 2.13 children, compared to 4.36 for Muslim
women, and 2.71 for Jewish women (the rates do no take into account the
Palestinian territories). And this is not a recent trend. If you look
at data between 1955 and 1959 you get an average of 4.6 for Christian
women compared to 8.3 for Muslims. The numbers speak for themselves.
Christian women have been having more or less half the number of
children as their Muslim sisters for over 50 years. It was easy to
predict what would happen. Together with emigration, the low Christian
birth rate paints a bleak future for the Christian presence in the Holy

Christians living here certainly need and deserve help. The
material needs are many and the external circumstances not easy.
However if we really want to stop the decline of the Christian
communities it is absolutely necessary for them to help themselves. It
is much easier to give money or to build a new home or a new school,
than to convince local families to be generous and have large families.
But to solve the problem you have to attack its real cause. Otherwise
the faded photo of Musrara will become the story of Nazareth and other
Christian villages in Galilee.

Alejandro Bertelsen studied Mathematics and Computer Science and has been living in Jerusalem since 1996.


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