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Bethlehem tries to stem exodus of Christians

West Bank town's economy suffers without tourists

Monks, nuns, and tourists in Bethlehem yesterday prayed at the Church of the Nativity, which stands on the site traditionally believed to be where Jesus was born. Many fewer Christians are making the familiar Christmas pilgrimage this year. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem, looked around the famous piazza outside the Church of the Nativity and sighed. The hordes of Christmas pilgrims who used to flock to the birthplace of Jesus at this time of year were nowhere to be seen.

"This is the saddest Christmas," Batarseh said. "As you see, Manger Square is empty."

The worsening times have inspired some creative measures: The Catholic Church has built housing in Bethlehem to keep Christian residents from fleeing, and a local businessman turns into a secret Santa each Christmas to spread cheer to poor families.

Before the intifadah, or Palestinian uprising, 50 buses a day used to make the 3-mile drive from nearby Jerusalem, bringing thousands of tourists who thronged the church, the souvenir shops, and the restaurants at peak periods. The dollars from the religious pilgrims fueled a thriving trade in religious figures, Nativity scenes, pendants, and jewelry .

But after six years of the uprising and Israeli military incursions, the tourists have disappeared and Bethlehem's economy is in ruins.

The town is now almost encircled by Israel's separation barrier, which Israel says is needed to stem the flood of Palestinian suicide bombers in the country. Palestinians say it has strangled Bethlehem's livelihood, cutting off the town from Jerusalem and deterring all but the most determined visitors.

A fragile cease-fire last year encouraged some tourists to return to the town, but last summer's war in Lebanon drove most of them away, and the eruption of deadly clashes between Fatah and Hamas further discouraged visitors. As the tourist trade has dwindled, so too has the Christian population of the town. Fifty years ago, 80 percent of Bethlehem residents were Christians. Now, Christians make up less than 25 percent out of a population of about 30,000.

Emigration has soared in recent years, fueled by the continuing violence and economic crisis, and the feeling among many Christians that the Muslim majority in Bethlehem does not regard them as equals.

Five years ago, Carlos Satara was ready to leave Bethlehem. Recently married, he had no job, very little money, and a visa for Canada that seemed like a ticket to freedom.

But he stayed, thanks to a subsidized housing project built by the Catholic Church and a cash loan provided by a sympathetic local businessman.

"Now, it's still difficult but it's better than before," said Satara, 32, as he showed a visitor around the modern three-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife and two small children.

His apartment complex, The Child Jesus, is one of several constructed in recent years by the Franciscan Fathers and Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem to give affordable housing to Christian families with no land of their own and little or no money, and help them stay in the country.

"We are living in a situation of struggle, occupation, and chaos," said Father Shawki Baterian, general administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which has spent more than $10 million on housing projects in the West Bank. "We have no proper government. Sometimes the church takes the role of the government itself."

Hanna Siniora, a prominent Palestinian Christian and co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the church's effort was vital.

"I hope it's not too late," Siniora said. "It's very much needed. It will help Palestinian Christians to stay in the Holy Land. We don't want to see our churches end as museums."

The church is not the only one helping residents in Bethlehem.

Last week, schoolgirl Myrna Siryani, 13, answered the phone at home and was surprised to find herself speaking to "Santa Claus."

"He spoke to me in Arabic!" the delighted teenager said. "He asked me what present I would like, and I said I wanted clothes, because I am too old now for toys. He's coming to our house. I'm looking forward to meeting him."

Over the weekend, dozens of Bethlehem's poorest children will receive the gifts they requested from the man in the white beard and red suit. But few people know the real identity of the Secret Santa of Bethlehem.

The effort is the closely guarded secret of a local businessman who in the past six years of acute economic distress has given away tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans to the most impoverished Christian families in town, according to recipients.

Santa's only regret, he said -- on condition of anonymity -- is that his own business affairs are so bad that this year he will be able to deliver presents to only about 60 children instead of the 150 he has helped in previous years.

In addition to his Christmas operations, the same anonymous benefactor has stepped in numerous times in recent years to assist Christians who have fallen on hard times.

"I believe that if a man needs food you don't give him fish, you give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it," he said.

In pursuit of that philosophy, he has given out numerous loans to individuals to start businesses -- including a restaurant, a taxi company, a mobile phone outlet, and a clothing shop, according to people he has helped.

Carlos Satara says he and his family were among those who received a helping hand from the same man. Now they run a successful fast-food restaurant that has managed to stay afloat despite the town's economic woes.

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