Christians in Bethlehem

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Benedict the Sixteenth has arrived in Jordan on his first trip to the Middle East since he became Pope. He said his stop in Jordan allowed him to express his deep respect for the Muslim community. The Pope will also minister to Jordan's tiny Christian community. And next week, he will celebrate mass in Bethlehem. But there will be fewer local Christians than ever to attend. Tens of thousands of Christians have emigrated from the West Bank over the past 20 years. Linda Gradstein reports from Bethlehem.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: It's Sunday morning, and the Handal family is attending church as they do every Sunday. Their youngest daughter, 11-year-old Agnes, is due to receive her second communion in two weeks. She's been studying and practicing for months. The family sometimes attends a local church near their home, but today they've come to the Catholic chapel at the side of the Church of the Nativity. And it is here that Agnes will attend her ceremony in which she believes the spirit of God will enter her body. Agnes says she's excited about the ceremony and looking forward to wearing her new white dress. Adel Handal says his family has lived in Bethlehem for more than 500 years, and it's home. But, he says, it's becoming harder to live here.

ADEL HANDAL: I was born here. It's my destiny to be born in Bethlehem, but before the Christian life or all the life of Bethlehem is better than now. Here, the situation is very difficult � the life is very difficult � no business, no work, the situation, especially the political situation, and most of, especially the Christian families emigrate.

GRADSTEIN: Handal's younger brother left for California nine years ago. He's now married and has three children in the US, where he works in a gas station. Handal hasn't seen his brother since he left. His oldest son, 17-year-old Issa, wants to study physics and has been attending a special program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem sponsored by MIT. But Bethlehem University offers only a limited curriculum of business, hotel management and languages. Handel says Issa will most likely have to travel abroad to pursue his education.

HANDAL: I worry about my children because no hope for them here. If I have a chance to emigrate, I'll emigrate not for me but for the kids because there is no future for the kids. If I have a chance, I would leave to Europe, to America, not for me and my wife, just for the kids.

GRADSTEIN: 20 years ago, the Christian population of the West Bank was three percent. Today, it is less than one percent, and even traditionally Christian towns such as Bethlehem, Beit Jalla, and Beit Sahour have Muslim majorities. Hundreds of Palestinians leave Bethlehem every year and very few return. Many Palestinians here say Israel is responsible for the growing Christian emigration. The controversial barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank cuts directly through Bethlehem. Palestinians who want to travel to Jerusalem or other parts of the West Bank have to go through a series of Israeli checkpoints. There have also been some tensions between Christians and Muslims with several Christian homes torched a few years ago. The rate of Christian emigration has been traditionally higher than that of Muslim emigration partly because Christians tend to be wealthier and better educated. Many here also already have family abroad to help them when they arrive. And the Church has also sponsored students to study abroad, like Handal's niece, 19-year-old Regine Handal. Regine is visiting her family in Bethlehem. She is completing her first year at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, Canada, where she received a full scholarship. She hopes to become a doctor. She says her parents encouraged her to accept the scholarship, but says that leaving home was not easy. What do you miss?

REGINE HANDAL: Everything. The streets, the shops, the church. Everything. My friends, the whole atmosphere, there's something special about it.

GRADSTEIN: Regine says she hopes to return to Bethlehem when she finishes her studies but says she may not have much to return to.

REGINE HANDAL: Christians are the minority here and people are leaving like every year, because there's no jobs, there's like � I don't know. The situation here is not as comfortable, so maybe.

GRADSTEIN: Her Uncle, Adel Handal, goes even further.

ADEL HANDAL: Maybe after 20 years, you will not find one Christian family in Bethlehem, because if one of the family emigrate maybe after 5 years, 6 years, he will ask his family to follow him. It's very sad.

GRADSTEIN: Handal says he was more excited when the previous Pope John Paul the Second visited Bethlehem in 2000. He said there was hope that the Pope's visit would spark a revitalization in Bethlehem � but then the Second Intifada started and the economic situation deteriorated substantially. He says he welcomes Pope Benedict the 16th and hopes he will bring not just moral support but more financial support for Christian institutions in the town. For The World, I'm Linda Gradstein, in Jerusalem.