The bell tower of the Nativity Basilica in Bethlehem and a view of the city (Isabel Rodríguez)
Bassem, like most Christians living in Bethlehem, depends on tourism for a living. He has a workshop and a shop of olive wood figurines and other religious objects on Milk Grotto Street, a few meters from the Chapel of the Milk Grotto and less than a five-minute walk from the Basilica of the Nativity, where Jesus’ birthplace is venerated. This is the second Christmas that locals will not be able to welcome foreign pilgrims due to the coronavirus.
When Bassem was younger, he moved with his family to New Zealand in search of greater opportunities. However, when his father asked him to return to Bethlehem to help sell the family business, the trip took an unexpected turn. Instead of selling it, Bassem decided to continue with the workshop and gift shop that his grandfather had started in 1925, staying in Bethlehem. It was a sense of responsibility and mission linked to his Christian identity that moved him to stay in his hometown: “I can’t walk away from this – it means so much to us.”
His case is exceptional; many of his fellow Palestinian Christians have preferred to go abroad in search of a better life. And, of those living abroad, very few consider ever moving back. Maria, who is a travel guide for pilgrims in Bethlehem, affirms that, although her husband and she stayed, they laid foundations for their children that would give them the possibility of building their futures abroad. She sent them to international schools, had them learn languages, and made sure they went to European universities. “Like me, there are many people who decide to give their children that opportunity,” she adds.
In Bethlehem, Christians, who were historically the majority population, make up less than a third of the population today
Maria is passionate about her work and knows that she can only do it there, in the Holy Land, but she understands the many who have left and the many others who are thinking about leaving. “Our life is very limited and even more so as the years go by,” she says. “They leave because there’s no place for them here.” On the one hand, she explains, the place is small and the population is growing; on the other, there are no job opportunities, especially for the more qualified demographic. Furthermore, due to the deeply rooted Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” and limitations when it comes to education, work and free movement lead to frustration.
Despite their active communities in places like Jerusalem, Nazareth, Haifa or Bethlehem, Christians in the Holy Land have been a minority there for many centuries. The opportunities and free movement are greater when it comes to Arab Christians who have Israeli residency permits or Israeli citizenship, compared to those who live in Palestinian Territories without either. Even so, the trend to seek a better life in other countries is shared amongst all Christian communities, on both sides of the wall.
According to a 2020 study by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Christians in the Holy Land hovered around 10% in 1922, with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the British mandate. Today, in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, they represent just 1%. This 1% includes Christians of all confessions. The Orthodox make up about half, followed by Catholics and other even smaller communities such as Armenians, Protestants, etc.
Bethlehem, for example, had historically been a predominantly Christian city. In 1922, Christians made up 84% of the population; today they account for a mere 30%. There are several causes that explain this drastic drop, the main being emigration for economic reasons, although this factor is linked to the wars and instability of the last decades.
Contrary to what some might think, for the vast majority, discrimination and religious persecution haven’t played a part in this drop. In general, the study respondents cited feeling respected by their neighbors of other religions. Another important factor though, is that population growth among Jews and Muslims is higher; the Christian birth rate is the lowest compared to that of other religious groups. It’s worth noting that Christians have, proportionately speaking, the highest percentage of individuals with higher degrees, compared to Jews and Muslims. This makes them more inclined to seek opportunities abroad.
According to Khalil Shokeh, director of the Dar Sabagh for Diaspora Studies and Research Center, an institution that studies the exodus of Palestinian Christians and works to connect those living abroad with their origins, the diaspora occurred in different waves and dates back to the early 20th century. When the territory was still under the Ottoman Empire, many Christians who made their living through craftsmanship, especially olive wood products, emigrated to expand their businesses in Europe and Latin America, becoming the first communities of the diaspora.
It’s always very surprising for people from the West to realize that Christianity, of course, is not a Western thing” – Janine di Giovanni
In 1909, there was an Ottoman decree that enacted conscription of Christians into the Army, something they had thus far been exempt from. And soon after, with the outbreak of World War I, youth were forced to enlist. The situation triggered some to try to escape, fleeing to those countries where their relatives had previously emigrated to, a trend that continued throughout the British mandate. Of those who had left with Ottoman passports, very few were granted new passports from the British, which prevented them from returning to their place of origin.
With the establishment of the state of Israel and the War of 1948, many fled, both Christian and Muslim Palestinians, this time as refugees, to other countries in the Arab world, Europe and America. And from there, there were successive waves as a consequence of the wars that followed, the intifadas, instability and the ongoing conflict. Those who had family or friends who had been part of the diaspora took advantage of these connections to settle in those countries.
Today, one of the oldest and most active communities, in addition to being one of the largest, is in Chile; it’s made up of approximately half a million people. There are also significant emigrant communities in Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador.
Danger of disappearance
What’s happening in the Holy Land reflects a trend occurring throughout the broader Middle East. In recent decades, the number of Christians in the region has dropped dramatically. In her latest book, The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, journalist Janine di Giovanni aims to document this phenomenon, using her three decades of experience as a reporter in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt or the Palestinian Territories.
“It’s always very surprising for people from the West to realize that Christianity, of course, is not a Western thing,” Di Giovanni declared in an interview. “It started in the Middle East: Jesus Christ was a Jew.” For this reason, her book highlights these Christian communities, which are among the oldest in the world, and which are suffering the consequences of war, the rise of radical groups such as ISIS, discrimination and economic difficulties consequent of the area’s instability.
Pope Francis, in his historic visit to Iraq, recalled that “the tragic decline of the disciples of Jesus (Christians) here and in the Middle East does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind. Such a rich and diverse social fabric is left weakened. As with an intricately designed carpet, removing a small thread will damage the entire thing.”
A public holiday in Bethlehem
Christmas is a public holiday in Bethlehem. Both Christians and Muslims participate in everything that’s organized in the streets to celebrate Christmas. This year, despite the absence of tourists and pilgrims, the people of Bethlehem have been more enthusiastic about the festivities than ever. Since the beginning of December, the streets have offered lively and festive events, bringing joy and great delight to little ones.
The traditional tree lighting which takes place in front of the Basilica of the Nativity included live music shows for the first time this year. The Christmas market, which barely lasted a day in past years, now stretches along new streets and lasts two weeks. María says that over the years, they’ve continually tried to update the Christmas celebration and that it’s becoming westernized. “This is good, because there’s a market, it creates work, and it is affecting the local community. It adds a touch of joy that is much needed these days.”
Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher