Israeli Occupation Pushes Christians to Leave Bethlehem

Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was once born, is now suffering from Israeli Occupation and persecution targeted on Christians as Christmas approaches.

The Christian mayor of Bethlehem, Hanner Nasir, has condemned the Israeli occupation for their oppressive siege which is forcing an ever increasing number of Christians to leave Bethlehem.

"The closure and oppressive siege have crippled Bethlehem and deteriorated the living conditions of its people to an unprecedented degree," he said.

Looking back in history, the unrest between Israelis and Palestinians has been causing the deaths of uncountable innocents throughout the years. Bethlehem used to be a Palestinian city with the largest Christian population. Christians and Muslims lived together in peace.

However, in 2000, the Israeli army invaded the city, and many people sought sanctuary in the besieged Church. There is now an extremely high unemployment rate, and the infamous Wall, called by some the "Apartheid Wall", is beginning to encircle Bethlehem and is cutting its people off with an eight meter high concrete barrier.

An estimated 2400 Christians - about 6 percent of a total of approximately 40,000 living in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas in the southern West Bank - have left since September 2000, which signalled the start of the Palestinian intifada, according to Nasir.

Nasir expressed sorrow for the harsh reality faced by Christians in Bethlehem, "Each year I try not to be gloomy in my Christmas message...But the harsh facts on the ground and the clouds of instability and suffering that continue to overshadow Bethlehem strongly push me to this direction."

"Living under occupation is certainly the most painful experience man can face and the biggest offence to human rights and dignity," he said.

"We each day have to swallow the bitterness of the Israeli practices: killing of our people, demolition of houses, arrest and humiliation."

Nasir therefore called for an international awareness of the issue. "Christians all over the world should know this reality. If we don't have a quick breakthrough in the peace process more are going to leave," he said.

Pax Christi, an international Catholic movement for peace, has formed a group making up of members from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the UK to visit Christians in Bethlehem at Christmas. They will also meet with members of the Muslim and Jewish communities who are working for peace and human rights in the region.

Pax Christi has also previously launched its "People of the Holy Land need Bridges not Walls" campaign to raise awareness of the impact of the separation wall on the Palestinian community.

In addition, earlier this year, Christian Peacemaker Teams organised forty days of prayer for the people of Bethlehem.