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Christian exodus { May 6 2002 }

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Christians Speed Exodus From Bethlehem
As Jobs and Freedom Are Lost, Hardships of Incursion Outweigh Appeal of Living in Holy City

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 6, 2002; Page A11

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, May 5 -- Grace and Maher Handal met in the Church of the Nativity. They were married there. Their twins were christened there. They gave up an opportunity to move to the United States and stayed in Bethlehem, where the church is so central to their lives.

But today, their Easter, they have had enough. With a ring of Israeli tanks keeping them out of the church compound, their livelihood lost to an Israeli military curfew and their children confined to their house for a month by the siege, they are desperate to leave the Holy Land.

"I want to live a normal life, where my children are not afraid," said Grace Handal, 27. "Where shells don't go over our house and tanks don't come into our yard. My kids used to draw pictures of birds. Now they draw tanks."

With Orthodox Christians here struggling to celebrate their most solemn holiday with their most important church a shooting ground, many like the Handals have decided to leave.

Even before tonight's announcement of an agreement to end the standoff around the church, Christian leaders worried that the hardships of the past month would accelerate an exodus that has shrunk the last Christian enclaves in the places where Jesus is believed to have been born, preached and died.

"There should be 10,000 in my congregation, but there are half that," said the Rev. George Shahwan, referring to his Greek Orthodox church in Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. "The exodus is our biggest problem. We want to continue having a living church, but if this continues, the holy sites in Palestine will become like museums."

Bethlehem was once said to be 98 percent Christian. Now Christians are a minority in the Palestinian-ruled town, as well as in the Israeli city of Nazareth, and reduced to a few thousand in Jerusalem. The long Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, with its economy-strangling curfews and border closures, and an underlying tension with Muslims, have all fed the outflow.

The Israeli military incursion into Bethlehem that began April 2, on the heels of an 18-month Palestinian uprising against continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has devastated the city best known as the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem's downtown has been ravaged by tanks and gunfire. Tourism, its economic lifeblood, has stopped. The curfew has shut all schools, shops and businesses.

"So many families are now leaving, or thinking of leaving," said Abdulla Abu-Eid, as he waited outside the Beit Jala church with his family for an abbreviated Easter procession. "Everyone is thinking of a better life."

Christians have been leaving in large numbers since 1948, when Israel became a state. The departures accelerated after 1967, when Israel captured Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan.

Accurate census numbers do not exist, but in the early 1900s, Christians were thought to make up about 20 percent of the population of what is now Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Now they are less than 2 percent, according to Charles Sennott, author of "The Body and the Blood," a book about Christian flight from the Holy Land. "It is indisputable that the Christian presence has dwindled dramatically," Sennott wrote.

Bethlehem was largely returned to Palestinian control after the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and for a brief time, people like the Handals were optimistic that the city had a good future.

"It was a nice town. We wanted to raise our children here," Grace Handal said.

But with the outbreak of the new Palestinian uprising in September 2000, and the frequent closures of Palestinian areas imposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, Bethlehem was cut off from tourist traffic and its workers were prevented from reaching their jobs in Israel. Two of its main economic pillars were lost.

Maher Handal's coffee shop and souvenir store closed. He hasn't worked in months. Their 1-year-old, Natalia, has not been baptized in the Church of the Nativity like her 7-year-old siblings, Bshara and Lara. Since the tanks arrived, daily activities in the town have stopped, and the children have been cooped up at home. "They are going crazy," said Maher, 32.

Michele Hanania, 27, decided to go ahead with his wedding today, even though he was unsure whether the curfew would be lifted so that his guests could attend. The ceremony took place in the Church of the Virgin Mary, a smaller neighborhood church in Beit Jala, rather than the Church of the Nativity.

About 100 people attended; 300 families had been invited. They watched as the bride, Ranya, 24, all white lace and flourishes, sat stiffly beside Michele, the label of his new suit still on its sleeve, under the gaze of a stained-glass Jesus on the cross. There was no party afterward.

Though neither has a job, Michele said they will not move. "We have to stay in Bethlehem because this is where Jesus was born," he said. But he also said he understands those who leave: "They don't have work. They don't have a quiet situation. They have to look out for their families."

The Church of the Virgin Mary has tried to carry on the traditions of the Greek Orthodox holy week. But the traditional carrying of candles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried, to Bethlehem became a logistical nightmare because of Israeli roadblocks between the two cities, which are about six miles apart. Turnout for processions during the week was cut by the curfews, even though the Israeli military insisted it had made exceptions for Christian residents. The traditional sunrise Easter service was held later in the day because of the dangers of moving around the city in the dark. Even the church bell sounded tinny: Israeli gunfire had riddled the main bell, said Bishara Daod, a church elder.

Bethlehem's deputy mayor, Ziad Bandak, said 250 families have left the city since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising. "The problem is they are the younger families who are looking to the future. And they are the ones who would have produced more children for Christians to remain here."

Whatever the cause, "everybody thinks of leaving," said Jabra Mitwasi, 28, an accountant who is contemplating moving to Canada.

"If it were only for four weeks, I could stand it," he said. "But I know it will never end. It will keep on like this. There is no peace in this land."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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