Israel-Palestinian Violence Triggers Christian Arab Exodus

VOA News <http://www.voanews.com>

By Laurie Kassman

Posted Wednesday September 19, 2001 - 05:12:10 PM EDT

Bethlehem - For years now, the number of Christians in the Middle East
has been dwindling steadily. The last year of fighting between Israel
and the Palestinians has accelerated the Christian exodus.
Christians dominated the Middle East for more than six centuries. They
far outnumbered the Muslims and Jews who lived there with them.
Today, Christians number fewer than 14 million in the region, compared
with a Muslim population of more than 340 million. In Israel and the
Palestinian territories, they number fewer than 180,000 and account for less than
two percent of the population. And their numbers continue to decline
dramatically.
Bernard Sabella runs the Palestinian Affairs department of the Middle
East Council of Churches. He estimates between 500 and 600 Christian Arabs
have been leaving the West Bank each month since the latest Palestinian
uprising erupted a year ago.

The numbers multiplied after Israel sent tanks into the mostly Christian
West Bank village of Beit Jala in August. Mr. Sabella calls it a hemorrhage.

"Historically, when you talk about people leaving from the Holy Land,
usually they leave when there is a political situation characterized by
insecurity, uncertainty and the impact of the political situation on the
economic situation," he explains.
Suha Tareh, 23, of Beit Jala plans to leave for the United States within
a few months.
She admits it was not an easy decision.
"Leaving Beit Jala, it is difficult for me to leave Beit Jala. I love
this place. I love this country. This is where I was born," she says." But
what can I do? Life will go on and I can't take it here and I hope to find a
better life in the United States." Father Michael McGarry runs Tantur
Ecumenical Institute in Bethlehem. He says many families in Beit Jala
are tired of getting caught in the crossfire in the latest Palestinian
uprising against Israel.
But Father McGarry says security is not the only concern.
"Unemployment in the West Bank is variously estimated at between 30 and
70 percent," he says. "Hidden within those statistics are people who are
actually out of work and people who are working without getting paid.
How do you describe someone who is a social worker or teacher who has been
working for three months and not getting paid? They're not unemployed but
they're not getting any money either." Father McGarry says church leaders and
Christian aid groups are doing all they can to encourage people to stay,
including financial aid, work programs and charity.

"The nightmare is that perhaps there will come a time when the Holy Land
will be the equivalent of a Christian theme park with all these building
commemorating great events in the life of Jesus but without a living
community to sustain them," Father McGarry says.

Well-educated youngsters like Suha see little future if they stay home
as long as the political and economic situations remain so uncertain. Her
father had to close down his hotel in Beit Jala for lack of tourists and
now is thinking of leaving the country too.
"My dad is very depressed and my dad is a businessman," she explains.
"And now he is sitting at home doing nothing and for him it's too much. He
can't take it anymore."

Researcher Bernard Sabella of the Middle East Council
of Churches says the exodus of educated, middle and upper-middle class
families is undercutting future plans for investment and development.
Christians inside Israel also complain of social and political
discrimination and efforts to move them out and alter the demographic
balance.
Mr. Sabella says changing demographics will not help the peace efforts
either. "It is not a question of political commitment, it's a question of you
belong to a place or not. I belong. I want my children to belong. I look
forward to a time when my belonging to the place and the Israeli belonging to the
place won't clash or contradict one another," he says.

Young Christian Arabs like Suha express little optimism.
"If I leave here it's going to be permanent because the situation the
conflict in this country will never end. This is what I know. It will
never end," she says.
Christians in the region also express concern over the spreading
influence of Muslim fundamentalists and a general lack of democratic institutions
to protect their rights as a minority.

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