Christians' exodus reshapes Holy Land

December 26, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- One solitary string of colored lights drapes the YMCA here, the only public sign of Christmas in the city that gave the world Christianity.

"Every year at Christmas Eve I cry," said Francis Karam, 58, an Arab Christian born in Jerusalem. "I remember days gone by, the way it used to be. We used to celebrate Christmas with 50 or 60 people in the house. Now, there are four or five."

The Holy Land is emptying of Christians. The birthplace of the world's religion with the most adherents, part of the first Christian empire, the goal of columns of knights who marched from Europe during two centuries of Crusades, now has but a small and dwindling minority of resident Christians.

The Vatican will establish diplomatic ties with Israel on Thursday, paving the way for a historic visit by Pope John Paul II. He will worship at the shrines visited by more than 1 million pilgrims each year.

But when the tourists leave, the churches will echo vacantly, the shrines will gather dust, the priests and nuns will pray among themselves until the next batch of foreign visitors arrives.

"We don't want the Christian sites to end up to be museums, just sites for pilgrim tourists," said Aida Haddad, a Lutheran librarian who has watched her fellow Christians leave Jerusalem.

"You don't want dead stones. You want living stones filled up with Christians from the country."

The drain is most dramatic from the Holy Land, now modern Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But it is part of a emigration of Christians from all of the Middle East. They are leaving because of political repression, economic hardships and the pressures from Jews and Muslims.

Their departure is both a religious and political blow. Ever since contact was made at the point of a Crusader's sword, Christians have had ties to the West. They have served as a political and cultural counter to Islam, a fast-growing force often stridently antagonistic to the West.

"When the Christian community is gone, you will get a strictly 100 percent Muslim society. They will have a different perspective, a different attitude, a kind of 'us against them' mentality," warned Kenneth E. Bailey, a religious historian based in Cyprus.

'No future here'

Nael Raja Qahhaz shrugs at these sweeping implications. All he wants is a good job. The 26-year-old Christian house painter waits in a line at the U.S. Consulate -- just up the road from where Jesus is said to have been crucified -- to get a visa to leave.

"There is no future here," he said. Work is sporadic. Even the best-paying jobs, in Jewish settlements, pay $28 a day. An Arab employer offers half that -- "not enough to get a house. Not enough to get married. Hardly enough for cigarettes."

Does he feel any pull, as a Christian, to stay in the Holy Land? No, Mr. Qahhaz says. "All of the Christians are leaving. Why should they ask me to stay?"

They are following a well-worn path from the Old Country to the New: to South America, to the United States, to Canada, to Australia. In Israel and the West Bank, there are fewer than 170,000 Christians among 7 million Jews and Muslims.

In Bethlehem, where Jesus is said to have been born, a centuries-old Christian majority has shriveled to a minority of 35 percent.

In Jerusalem's Old City, services are sparsely attended. "When I go to church, there are seven or eight people there. It used to be full," said Terese Rumy, 68, who regularly attends Sunday Orthodox services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected.

Elias Shomali, a banker in Baltimore, left his home in the outskirts of Bethlehem in 1969 at the age of 26.

Typically, the reasons for emigrating are to pursue higher education and a career in banking.

Lack of jobs

"For me, as a banker, the question was, to go back and do what? We [Palestinians] do not have any banks. The lack of job opportunities in addition to the hard political and social climate," made it difficult to remain, he said.

Mr. Shomali said that with the recent moves toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the incentive to return might be greater. But his four children were born and raised in Baltimore and are unlikely to resettle in the land of their ancestors.

"If peace prevails in the Middle East, I probably would go back," he said. "I don't know if my children would. They have their own friends here."

There are no reliable numbers for the Christian exodus from the Middle East.

Even among Palestinians, Christians are reluctant to announce their intention to leave, for fear of alienating Muslims. "The Muslims say we are afraid, and we don't fight Israel like they do," said Besma Tannous, a young mother of four and a Greek Orthodox Palestinian. "Many are afraid for our children," she acknowledged.

"We send them to the States, and later on we follow them."

The Christian population of the Middle East is estimated at between 6 million and 9 million, roughly 5 percent to 7 percent of the population.

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