Will the Holy Land become a theme park of Christian history with most of the Christians gone?

This bleak picture is projected by Christian leaders throughout the region where Jesus walked and taught almost two millennia ago.

"We, as Christians, have become an insignificant part of the population," says 57-year-old Canon Riah Abu El Assal, archdeacon of the Jerusalem diocese of the Evangelical Episcopal Church. In the middle of the century, Christians represented 25 percent of the Holy Land's population, he explains in the small, stone Christ Church, a short walk from the Nazareth site where tradition says the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the Messiah. Now the Christian population is only around 2 percent.

In less than 30 years, Riah says, the number of Christians in the faith's geographical heart, Jerusalem, has dropped from 28,000 to 7,000. The tale of decline is repeated across the land of the Gospels' story. Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, today for the first time houses more Muslims than Christians. His boyhood home of Nazareth, 90 percent Christian not long ago, now is 65 percent Muslim. Ramallah, a town near the place where Mary and Joseph discovered the 12-year-old Jesus had been left by their traveling group in Jerusalem, once had an entirely Christian population; now it is nearly all Muslim.


The drain of Christians from the Holy Land, little noted by the church in the rest of the world, is part of a general exodus of Palestinian Arabs from a homeland they have found hostile and unpromising. Beginning with the war for independence in 1948, when the new State of Israel occupied vast areas of Palestinian land and began imposing harsh conditions on its Arab inhabitants, steady emigration has ...

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