Sixty years ago, when Jordan occupied Bethlehem after the 1948 war, 80 percent of Bethlehem's population was Christian. At the time, a respected bishop gathered his parishioners together and announced, "A day will come when you will visit this city as a pilgrim because there will be no more Christians left in the city."
That vision has turned into a prophecy, explained Shibley Kando, who owns one of the biggest Christian souvenir stores in Bethlehem.
"Now we are only 16 percent of the population. Every year the number is declining, what does the future look like? We don't know. This is the reality of our life. Thank God we are still living here."
Over the last two decades, life has become increasingly difficult for the tiny Christian community of Bethlehem. Christians here say they face daily threats and intimidation by their Muslim neighbors. Blackmail and land theft by Muslims tied to the Palestinian Authority is common here, they say. In addition, Christians say they are subject to anti-Christian verbal abuse and attacks from Muslims.
A 2007 religious freedom report on Israel and West Bank and Gaza, issued by the US Department of State, confirmed the allegations. The report stated, "The Palestinian Authority has not taken sufficient action to remedy past harassment and intimidation of Christian residents of Bethlehem by the city's Muslim majority. The PA judiciary failed to adjudicate numerous cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. PA officials appear to have been complicit in property extortion of Palestinian Christian residents, as there were reports of PA security forces and judicial officials colluding with gang members in property extortion schemes. Several attacks against Christians in Bethlehem went unaddressed by the PA."
This has led to a Christian exodus from the city - from 2001 to 2004, 3,000 Christians left the city for the US, Canada, Europe, Central America and South America. Jonathan, a lay leader at the Church of the Nativity, said that 300 Christians from Bethlehem have moved.
Palestinian Christians from abroad have risen to high political status in many countries. According to a Palestinian Authority census, 148,000 Christians with ties to Bethlehem live in Central America and South America. In El Salvador, the president is Tony Saca Gonzalez, whose family left Bethlehem last century; in Honduras, Carlos Roberto Flores, whose mother came from Bethlehem, served as a Palestinian official from 1998 to 2002.
Mr. Kando, a tall man in his early 40s, plans to stay - at least for now. Many of his friends have moved abroad, and just five out of his 28 high school classmates are still in Bethlehem. A lawlessness, and lack of justice, has spread throughout the city, he said.
"Life here is not easy. The Palestinian Authority is not providing enough law and order. Palestinian Authority police are loyal, first to their friends and family. If you have a disagreement with a person, and that person's brother is a policeman, then the policeman will be loyal to his brother first," said Mr. Kando.
These days, Bethlehem's dusty streets and sidewalks are empty much of the time. Just 6,000 tourists came for Christmas - down from the more prosperous days in the mid-'90s when Palestinians and Israelis first made peace. At that time, 20,000 to 30,000 tourists would visit during the holiday, and restaurants, gift shops, and churches were full.
Bethlehem's economy, which is almost entirely dependent on tourism, has been hard hit in recent years. On Christmas day, parts of the city seemed like a ghost town. And many of the Christians who still live here stayed inside their home to celebrate the holiday. In past years, they would have spent much of their time with friends and family celebrating at Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity. Since the Palestinian Authority made Christmas an official national holiday in 1996, local Christians say the real meaning of their holiday has taken a backseat to the Muslim festivities which now take place opposite the site where Jesus was born.
"We worship on Christmas but Muslims think that the holiday is like Carnival in Brazil," explained William Kando, a cousin of Shibley, who also lives in Bethlehem. Thousands of Muslims from nearby cities, like Hebron, now flock to the city to do things they can't do in their own village, said Mr. Kando, such as drinking alcohol and looking at Christian women who do not wear hijabs, or head coverings. A decade ago, before the Palestinian Authority took control over the city from Israel, the Kandos say Christmas was a much happier time.
"Until 1993, the Israelis put up checkpoints at the entrance to the Nativity Square and Manger Square, and only Christians were allowed there," said William. "Today, if you want to go to Manger Square on Christmas Eve, you have to go with a bodyguard because 98 percent of the people are Muslims."
Christians say they have limited access to the squares near the birthplace of Jesus, and they also say it is dangerous to walk or shop in the city's main market, just yards from the squares. Many say they have had their crosses and crucifixes ripped from their necks from gangs who resell them to Muslim merchants.
Christians still can pray at the church but no longer spend time outside fraternizing. Many are upset that the area is off-limits much of the time to Christians. Muslims use the square for their own political activities. For example, last January the Muslims set up a tent to protest against an Israeli archaeological dig in Jerusalem. Muslims also use the area for sports, and in fact, during the summer the square opposite the Church of the Nativity is turned into a soccer field by Muslims.
"They use the door of the Church of the Nativity as their goal," said Peter, 28, a Christian TV producer who hopes to move to the US soon. "They have no respect for our religion. If we did this at a mosque they would kill us."
"The 24th of December is the worst and saddest day in Bethlehem," said Shibley Kando. "The joy and the happiness that we once had does not exist anymore. They took us out of the celebration."
The day is particularly difficult for Christian women and girls who celebrate the holiday publicly. Sexual harassment by Muslims against the women and girls is a daily occurrence, they say, but it reaches a peak on Christmas eve when thousands of Muslims jam the squares near the church.
"My friends' daughter got home after the midnight mass and saw that she had red blotches all over her body. They were from the Muslim men who pinched her, and she couldn't do anything to stop them," said William Kando.
As their population has diminished, their political clout has fallen. While Palestinian law still dictates that the city's mayor must be a Christian, just three Christians - including the mayor - sit on the council that runs the city. For the first time in the city's history, the council has a strong coalition led by Islamic fundamentalists - five of the members belong to Hamas, one to Islamic Jihad, and six are Fatah representatives.
Even before the 2007 elections the Palestinian Authority granted Hamas permission to build its largest center in the West Bank just one-half mile from Jesus's birthplace. The nine-story building can be seen throughout the city, and is crowned by golden-domed mosques on its top floor. The building also contains a madrassa for Muslims to study shariah - Islamic law - a children's school, Hamas' administrative offices, and a senior center.
As their power has diminished, Christmas decorations have become scarce in the city. In the downtown area there were some illuminated stars and some Christmas trees near the Church of the Nativity, but for the most part just Palestinian flags hung down from street lights.
While Christians plot their steps before they travel throughout the city, and sometimes do not openly display their crosses and crucifixes in public, the opposite is true for Muslims. On the day after Christmas, a middle aged Muslim man spread a small rug on a sidewalk near the church, dropped to his knees and prayed as bystanders walked around him.
While the holiday is not the same as it once was for Christians, they still show their solidarity on the day before Christmas, when Christian youth marching bands from Bethlehem and other nearby villages parade through the downtown streets dressed in the boy and girl scout uniforms. Many carry flags and hold banners from their organizations.
The scout groups are organized by church leaders throughout the city and represent several denominations, including, Latin, Anglican, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox.
Every church has its own private school, managed and subsidized by religious organizations from Europe and the U.S.
"Our children do not attend public school. In public schools here they focus on teaching Islam, and it's not an option for the kids. Children must study Islam in the public schools," said Shibley Kando. "Also, in our Christian schools, the level of education is higher and we prefer this education for our children. That's why wealthy Muslims send their kids to our schools. And we teach Islam to their children."
©The Bulletin 2008