About 2,000 years ago in fields near Bethlehem, angels were said to have told shepherds of the birth of Jesus. A few shepherds can still be found there today, wandering with their flocks across the sparsely covered grass slopes much as their predecessors did in biblical times, but their numbers are dwindling.

Most shepherds have given up the hard life and moved into modern homes adjoining the fields, where they work strictly on a part-time basis. Should the angels return, they would be likely to find many of the shepherds inside their homes next to an electric heater, watching television.

Only a few shepherds still watch their flocks by night, gazing up at the stars as their forefathers did, looking for good or bad omens and attempting to divine the future.

"Now technology has changed all that. People are less interested in the stars. I have radio, video, television and a satellite dish which picks up all 30 channels,'' Mr. Elisa Banoura, 67, a Palestinian Christian, told Ecumenical News International (ENI). "They supply me with all the weather reports and news I need.''

He typifies the modern-day shepherd now living on the outskirts of Bethlehem. He keeps only seven animals—sheep and goats—in a small room at the rear of his house, seldom letting them roam out of his backyard. He feeds them until they are ready to be slaughtered and sells them for about US$170 each.

The high cost of feedstuffs renders his vocation uneconomic, he says, making it a true labor of love to keep alive a family tradition dating back 500 years. Banoura, who is also a retired science teacher, is the last of a long line of shepherds. All of his children have decided to enter other professions, such as law and medicine, rather than to keep to family tradition.

Another shepherd, Ahmed Abyyiat, 60, a Muslim, was born and has lived all his life in Beit Sahur, also known as the Shepherds' Field. A member of the Taamrah tribe, he has been wandering the hills around Bethlehem since the age of seven.

His bed is a raised steel platform in an open field. He spends his nights covered in wool blankets, next to the wooden enclosure of his flock. There is a small stone shelter nearby, to provide protection in case of rain.

Waking before sunrise, he opens the gate for the sheep and goats and begins searching for grazing areas. The vegetation is often sparse. For most of the year the hills are brown and barren in appearance, as they have been for centuries. But they have served as home and a life support system for Abyyiat and his forefathers, nomadic tribesmen.

He has about 100 sheep and some goats. All of them have names and they understand him when he calls out. "As we walk, I sing and recite poetry, in which I delight, although I have never learned to read or write," he said.

He started learning his profession at the age of seven from his father, who learnt it from his father. "In my youth, one could stroll freely, without limits. You did not need anyone's permission or stop and think, 'Is this my land, or does it belong to someone else'," he said.

This was before 1967, when the West Bank was occupied by Israel. "This is sad for someone like me who is descended from a long line of shepherds, going back at least a century and probably even longer; I have always considered myself Palestinian," he said.

Most of the West Bank remains under Israeli military occupation but Bethlehem itself has been allowed limited Palestinian self-rule. Abyyiat noted that Jesus, who is recognized in the Koran as being of the holiest prophets, came from Bethlehem. But, he said: "I am a Muslim, and we have different beliefs about him. And no, I do not know the Christian story about his birth."

It was news to him that angels were meant to have appeared before the shepherds in biblical times to announce the coming of Jesus into the world.

"All those who can read and follow the Koran closely know that there were many miracles in the life of Jesus," he said. Ahmed devotes some time to prayer, but most hours are taken up with work.

"I am grateful that some of my sons help me in the fields but I know that not one of them will be a shepherd. The country is getting smaller and the food for the sheep more expensive. We are not making real profits any longer. I can see that we are a dying breed. In my area now there are only about 20 shepherds, so you can see how we are facing the threat of extinction."