Pope Encourages Arab Christians to Stay
By Julie Stahl
CNS Jerusalem Bureau Chief
22 March, 2000

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - In the first papal Mass ever in the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II Wednesday encouraged Christian Arabs not to abandon Bethlehem, the birthplace of their Savior.

Fresh from a welcoming ceremony where he backed Palestinian aspirations for a homeland, the Pope told some 20,000 worshippers gathered in Manger Square that Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, was the "heart of [his] Jubilee pilgrimage."

"Do not be afraid. I bring you news of great joy," the 79-year-old Pontiff told the worshippers, quoting the angel's greeting to Bethlehem's shepherds some 2,000 years ago, announcing the birth of Jesus.

"Peace be with you, do not be afraid," he said. "These are the divine words spoken by Jesus, himself, after he rose from the dead. They are the words of the church to you today."

Bethleham's tiny Christian community has dwindled in the past century. Fifty years ago, Christians made up 90 percent of the Bethlehem population. Now they represent less than half.

Most left because of the economic and political instability in the region. Since Bethlehem came under PA control four years ago, some Christians have reported harassment from Muslims, especially around Christian holidays.

The Christians, most of whom are Arab, are often referred to as a minority within a minority. They represent a mere two percent of the total population in both Israel and the PA territories.

In the PA areas as elsewhere in the Middle East, from Egypt to Lebanon to Iraq, Christian minorities live under often difficult conditions.

"Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem," the Pope said.

He offered greetings to the Muslims in the audience, who included PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, seated in the front row. Arafat's wife Suha was raised as a Christian

Like generations of shepherds and wise men before them, the Pope said, they too had come to Bethlehem on a pilgrimage.

Pope John Paul II told the crowd that he had wanted to celebrate the first Mass of his papacy in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. "It has not been possible until now," he said.

During the Pope's weeklong pilgrimage, he will follow in the steps of Jesus, from the place of His birth in Bethlehem, to His boyhood home in Nazareth, to the Galilee where He spent three years preaching, and finally to the place in Jerusalem believed to be His tomb and the place of His resurrection.