Skip to comments.Vatican Fears for Future of Bethlehem's Christian Sites
Posted on 11/09/2002 6:57:19 PM PST by marshmallow
AN ARCHBISHOP from the Vatican arrived in Bethlehem yesterday on a mission to stem the flow of Christians leaving the Holy Land.
As welcome as the prayers offered up by Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes at the Church of the Nativity was the £250,000 that he brought from the Vatican charity Cor Unum, to improve life for the Palestinian Christian minority and persuade them to stay.
For many, it is already too late. In Manger Square, the Nativity bells echo off the locked metal shutters of the towns closed souvenir shops, empty since the al-Aqsa intifada drove pilgrims away in September 2000.
At the al-Andaluz guesthouse, there is room at the inn, but no inn. It closed down months ago.
Christians have long been a beleaguered community in the Holy Land, where for hundreds of years they existed as dhimmis tolerated minorities under Islamic Arab and Turkish conquerors. Now they live under Israeli military rule. According to Father Amjad Sabbara, the Franciscan pastor of Bethlehem, the exodus has accelerated in the past 24 months as dozens have been driven out.
Economic hardship is the main factor, with many Christians dependent on tourism for their livelihood, including tour guides, the carvers of Bethlehems olive wood nativity scenes, and the owners of souvenir shops. It is the middle classes, the intelligentsia, who are leaving because those are the families who have money and can afford visas, he sighed. They wont come back. Those who left in 1967 did not come back.
The prospect of losing more of an already dwindling Christian community just 2 per cent of the general population, with the proportion having fallen to 13 per cent even in Bethlehem has made the Vatican anxious about the future of Christianitys holiest shrines. It is understandable why there is a desire among many to leave the country, a statement from Cor Unum said. The safekeeping of holy sites, however, would be seriously put in danger if Christians abandoned them.
Samir Hazboun, head of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, said that Palestinian Christians had been hit particularly hard, both by the collapse in tourism and by Israeli road closures that have sealed off West Bank towns. On average wealthier than their Muslim Arab neighbours, speaking English and with a large number of relatives overseas, Christians also found it easier to emigrate and find work abroad, he said.
I myself have sent my three daughters to Prague. My wife and I are alone now and we feel bad, but we want them to have an education. If the situation continues, I will not allow them to come back.
Iyad, a Greek Orthodox tour guide, is thinking of leaving. Sitting in his cousins deserted olive wood-carving workshop off Manger Square, he talked bitterly of golden years from 1993 to 1998, when the creation of a Palestinian Authority brought hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, followed by diamond years surrounding the Popes tour in 2000, which drew vast crowds.
With the Israeli far Right espousing the transfer of Arabs from the West Bank, some advocating force, others increasing economic and security pressures until they leave voluntarily, Iyad knows he is playing into their hands, but insists that he has no choice: Do you think it is easy? I am a tour guide and I have not had a tour party in ten days. The last one was a Japanese tourist who thought he was in Nazareth and left when he found out where he was.