In the land where Jesus lived, Christians say their dwindling numbers are turning churches from places of worship into museums. And when Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the places of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, they find them divided by a concrete wall. (Photo: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal at a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2009/Ammar Awad)
Members of the Abu al-Zulaf family, Palestinian Christians, have left the hills and olive groves of their village near Bethlehem for Sweden and the United States, seeking a better life than that on offer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Ayman Abu al-Zulaf, 41, moved to France in 1998. But he returned to Beit Sahour, the village where he was born, a year later. “I needed to be here, not in France,” he said. “Without Christians, the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, has no value.”
Today, Christians make up just 1 percent of the mainly Muslim population of the Palestinian territories, said Hanna Eissa, who is in charge of Christian affairs in the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs ministry. In 1920, they were a tenth of the population of Palestine — land where today Israel exists alongside the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Rising Muslim fundamentalism, a trend across the Middle East, concerns some. But most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of their community. In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995.