Marking the place where Jesus was born, the Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square stands 17 meters (55 feet) tall. During the holiday season, visitors swarm around the base, taking grinning selfies while snacking on paper cups of sweet corn. Christmas lights adorn the old stone alleyways and the falafel sellers keep their fryers working extra late.
More than a million foreign tourists visit the Church of the Nativity each year, especially during Christmas time. Few visitors will notice anything amiss during a quick visit to the birthplace of Jesus as they dash into the cathedral with their cameras held aloft and take a few minutes to browse the plethora of shops selling Christian trinkets, the same way visitors have done for decades. But behind the cheery Christmas lights, the demographics tell a different story.
Bethlehem’s Christian population is rapidly disappearing, as members of the community leave in droves for a better life abroad.
Bethlehem as well as nearby Beit Sahour and Beit Jala were 86% Christian in 1950. But by 2016, the Christian population dropped to just 12%, according Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, a Catholic who is the first woman to hold the post.
This trend is echoed across the West Bank. In the 1970s, Christians made up 5% of the population. Today, they are just 2%. In Bethlehem, only 11,000 Christians remain in the birthplace of Christianity.
The situation for Christians is even more precarious in Gaza. In 2006, a year before hard-line Islamist party Hamas seized power from the more moderate Fatah, there were 5,000 Christians living in the strip. Today, there are just 1,100, according to Samir Qumsieh, the owner of Nativity TV, the only Christian TV station in the West Bank and a researcher focusing on Christian issues.
In Israel, however, the Arab Christian population has held steady with demographic growth, increasing by about 5,000 over the past 20 years. Today there are 164,700 Christians in Israel, about 2% of the population, a similar ratio to past decades.
By contrast, a 2014 Pew Research study found that while the overall number of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa increased from 1.6 million to 7.5 million between 1900 and 2010, an increase of nearly 400%, non-Christian populations increased by tenfold during the same period. The Christian percentage of the overall population in the region thus decreased from 10% in 1900 to 5% in 2010.
The Pew study noted that part of this decline in the overall percentage is due to lower birthrates among Christians than Muslims. But it also found that Christians are more likely than other religious groups to emigrate from this part of the world.
In 2012, Christians faced religious harassment in more countries in the Middle East and North Africa than any other region of the world, according to the study.
Comparatively, Palestinian Christians are much more well-off than Syrian or Iraqi Christians, who are fleeing the country due to civil wars and religious persecution, said Dr. Amnon Ramon, a researcher focusing on Christianity at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.
But even in places that aren’t beset by crisis, Christians are still leaving, often for economic reasons. “Christian emigration is happening from the entire Middle East, partly because it’s easier for them to assimilate than Muslims,” said Ramon.
Ramon noted that Christians often send their children to church-affiliated schools, where European languages are taught at a high level. “That’s a huge advantage, and it gives them a good start to assimilating when they emigrate,” Ramon said. Christians are also more proportionately city dwellers from higher economic classes, which also eases the integration process.
In places like Europe and North America, there’s also less antagonism towards Christian immigrants over Muslim immigrants, said Ramon.
Complex Muslim-Christian interaction
Nabil Giacaman, a Christian shop owner of the “Christmas House” store on Manger Square, said that the focus on Christian-only emigration is an attempt to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims and foster division within Palestinian society. Since the Christian population is so much smaller, their shrinking numbers are felt that much more acutely, he said.
“It’s not about Christians and Muslims, it’s not that I’m facing these issues only because I’m a Christian,” said Giacaman. “As Muslims suffer, Christians also suffer. At the end, we are all Palestinian, we get the same permits and the same treatment at the checkpoints.”
Others say the situation is more nuanced.
“Officially [in the Palestinian Authority], the laws are the same for Christians and Muslims but there is still some racism [against Christians],” said Qumsieh, who noted that most of the racism is connected to land ownership, and that people generally try to sell land to members of their own religion.
‘People will stay if they can get a flat and a job’
Aside from the political situation, another main reason for the emigration is Bethlehem’s struggling economy. According to Baboun, the unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 27%, the highest in the Palestinian territories after Gaza. Average unemployment in the West Bank is 22%.
“We need housing projects, we need investors who will employ our youth,” said Qumsieh. “People will stay if they can get a flat and a job.”
Qumsieh’s own family is a perfect example of the struggle to get educated Palestinians to stay. As one of six highly-educated brothers, four of whom are engineers, Qumsieh is the only one who stayed in Bethlehem. His two sons, studying in the US, “mocked me to my face” when he asked if they were coming back to Bethlehem after graduating from college, Qumsieh recalled.
“I can’t see how we have a future with this problem of ongoing emigration,” Qumsieh said. “I hope it won’t come to be that the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will become museums.”
Baboun’s plan to improve the local economy centers around tourism. The city has one of the premier tourist sites in the Middle East – the Church of the Nativity – but is unable to capture the financial windfall that should come from attracting so many international tourists.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, 1.16 million foreigners visited the Church of the Nativity in 2013, the most recent year statistics were available. During the same year, 3.54 million tourists visited Israel.
All tourists to Bethlehem arrive from Israel through one of 29 checkpoints that lead to the city and surrounding villages.
A major complaint from Bethlehem residents involved in tourism is that most foreign tourists come to Bethlehem for only a few hours. Their big buses arrive at the tourism bus terminal next to Manger Square, they walk one block to visit the Church, and then immediately get back on the bus to return to Jerusalem. During their brief tour, the visitors spend very little money in the city.
Baboun said the city is considering a tourism tax to ensure some of the tourism dollars are directed back to the city, though declined to elaborate how or where the city would levy the tax.
Bethlehem is also in the midst of a sorely needed $20 million renovation of the Church of the Nativity, after years of negotiating with the three churches that administer the site as well as Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The renovations, which started in 2014, will repair the leaky roof, strengthen the support columns and reveal the original floor mosaics.
The church was first built in the 4th century, though renovations haven’t happened for the past 200 years. In 2012, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage in Danger site, a move Israel condemned as political, though Palestinians celebrated as a recognition over their sovereignty of the site.
Baboun said a major obstacle to economic development is that many of the large infrastructure projects must be coordinated with the Israeli Civil Administration, the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and the Bethlehem City Council. Much of the city does not have running water, forcing residents to get water delivered privately. And there are no wastewater treatment areas in the region, a major environmental issue.
Baboun is hoping that the tourists who throng Manger Square on December 24 will acknowledge the difficult realities while still celebrating the traditional Christmas sprit.
“Bethlehem is open, and Bethlehem is ringing the bells of joy for peace in the Middle East,” she said.
There are now 55 hotels in Bethlehem, Baboun added, hopefully ensuring that, unlike Joseph and Mary, everyone who wants will find a place at an inn.
“This issue of Christian emigration has become a political tool,” said Ramon, the researcher at the Jerusalem Institute. “There are right-wing groups, like Evangelists, who are always saying ‘Christians are in such a bad situation with the Muslims and that’s why they’re leaving!’ Then there’s liberal Protestants who emphasize that the relations between Christians and Muslims are good, and it’s just the Israeli occupation that is responsible for all this.”
“The real situation is somewhere in the middle,” he said. “The question about whether to stay or go is really dependent on one single thing: the question, where my children will have a better future?”