Image: Zakaria Mishriki
Bernat Armangue  /  AP
Zakaria Mishriki, a 32-year-old Christian storekeeper in Jerusalem's Old City, has cousins in several U.S. states and Canada.
updated 5/6/2009 3:16:51 PM ET 2009-05-06T19:16:51

When Pope Benedict XVI comes to the Holy Land next week, he will greet a community of believers whose numbers are gradually eroding.

Dwarfed by Jewish and Muslim populations, young Christians are increasingly leaving to seek their futures elsewhere, especially those in the Palestinian territories and east Jerusalem. Christians say they are treated with suspicion by both Jews and Muslims and feel caught in an increasingly polarized conflict between them.

"It became a Muslim cause and a Jewish cause, so Christians, we have nothing to do," said Zakaria Mishriki, a 32-year-old Christian storekeeper in Jerusalem's Old City who has cousins in several U.S. states and Canada.

The last decade has also seen rising Islamic sentiment in Palestinian society, which has increased pressure on Christians, said Mishriki, whose shop offers wooden nativity scenes and crucifixes.

Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians and consider all Palestinians a threat, added Mishriki, who was born to a Catholic family and now considers himself Protestant.

The Holy Land's Christians mainly consist of Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, with smaller contingents of Armenians, Assyrians and a smattering of other sects.

While their numbers have risen slightly since the period when Israel was founded, the growth rate has fallen far behind those for Jews and Muslims in the country.

There were around 140,000 Arab Christians in the Holy Land in 1945, according to Palestinian sociologist Bernard Sabella. Today, there are around 160,000, compared to 7.4 million people who live in Israel and 3.8 million in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Tight security
Israel will deploy 80,000 security officers as part of "Operation White Cloak" protecting Pope Benedict during his visit, police said Wednesday.

Israeli police commissioner Dudi Cohen called the visit a "historic event that is very complex from a security aspect."

He said 80,000 security personnel will be deployed to secure the pope's tour, including 60,000 police officers. The rest will be secret service agents and soldiers.

Pope Benedict XVI will be the second pontiff to make an official visit to Israel. His predecessor, John-Paul II, arrived in 2000 for a millennium year tour. Also, in 1964, Pope Paul VI crossed into Israel unofficially for a few hours.

In Jerusalem, the pope will visit the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, the Western Wall in the Old City; the Dome of the Rock, a main Muslim shrine, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial.

The pope will celebrate open air Mass in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

Cohen said more than 30,000 officers will be deployed in Jerusalem alone.

The commissioner said there were no specific intelligence warnings of attacks on the pope during his visit but noted, "terrorism is a reality Israel copes with all year round."

Police said they will close streets to traffic and tow cars parked along routes where the pope will be passing. For security reasons, the pope will use his famous "Popemobile" only for a short trip inside Nazareth on his way to Mass there, police said.

'Why should I stay?'
The Christian population inside Israel has actually tripled since the country was founded in 1948, thanks to the relative stability and prosperity of Israelis overall, said Sabella, while noting Arabs still suffer discrimination in government employment and budgets.

But in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where Palestinians are subject to an Israeli military occupation, the Christian community continues to hemorrhage people, he said.

"The Christian community is described most often as middle class, looking for the advancement of children and young people," he said. But because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and restrictive Israeli policies, he said, "People get to be 25 or 30, and they start thinking, 'Why should I stay?'"

Christians tend to be better educated and wealthier than their Muslim Arab neighbors, making it easier to leave.

Vatican officials have acknowledged the problem.

"Christians are a minority, and in a situation of difficulties the minorities suffer always more," the Vatican's ambassador to the Holy Land, Monsignor Antonio Franco, told reporters this week.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in Rome that the Christian exodus was "a great preoccupation for the Church."

During his Mideast visit, the pope will also reach out to Muslims and Jews. Many Muslims are upset over comments by the pope in 2006 seen as critical of their religion, while Israel and the Vatican have been at odds over whether Pius XII, the pope who reigned during World War II, did enough to try to stop the Holocaust.

'Make peace'
The most beleaguered Christian outpost in the Holy Land can be found in the Gaza Strip, where some 3,800 Christians live among 1.4 million Muslims. Christians there weathered the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, which ravaged the densely populated coastal territory.

Abdallah Jahshan, a 32-year-old Gaza Catholic, said he hoped the pope would somehow help bring a solution.

"We hope his visit will promote the peace in the area, and work to make peace between us and the Israeli people," he said.

While relations with the Muslim majority have traditionally been good, a Christian school has been attacked twice by unknown assailants, and in October 2007 a local Christian activist was murdered. His killers have not been found.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Christians say they still feel deep ties even though Muslims now make up two-thirds of the population.

Maher Canawati's family has lived in Bethlehem for 500 years but many of his relatives are now in Texas, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico. He left after high school, studied economics in Germany, married a Bethlehem woman and moved to California.

But five months ago, he came back. He now runs a family company that operates restaurants and souvenir shops. Many see no hope for the Palestinians, he said, but that should not deter them from remaining.

"My grandfather once told my father it would get better, but it never has," said Canawati, 30. Still, Christians "have hope for peace and stability."

"I always had it in mind to come back to Bethlehem. It's always home," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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