By Producer
NBC News
updated 12/25/2004 11:18:08 AM ET 2004-12-25T16:18:08

A tree stands prominently in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.  Not a Christmas pine adorned with bulbs and tinsel for the season, but an olive tree. The Palestinians call it “the tree of peace.” It looks dead. 

The body of the tree — barren, broken and pruned back — is a metaphor for Christian life here.

Throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories, Christians are losing both turf and population. Squeezed between opposing sides in an intractable war, Christians are slowly leaving the holy land.

More than 110,000 Christians lived in the occupied territories before 1948, only some 50,000 remain.  Bethlehem has the largest Christian community — with 27,000 — but it's in decline. 

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the lack of economic and social options has led more than 2,000 Christians to leave Bethlehem over the past four years.

Christians forced out
Karneg Balekdjian, a bespectacled, 30-year-old clerk for the Armenian Church of Jerusalem, won’t be celebrating Christmas this year with his family.

He recently packed his suitcases, said goodbye to his loved ones and the only home he’s ever known. “I’m not leaving Jerusalem for opportunity,” said Karneg “but for love.”

Israeli officials barred Balekdjian’s 26-year old bride, Ivette Askandarian, from immigrating to Israel. Born and raised in Iran — but Christian and ethnically Armenian  — Ivette couldn’t even visit Karneg in Jerusalem yet alone live with him. 

“We had no idea,” Balekdjian sighed, “our lives together would begin with forced separation.”

Israeli immigration rules shut out people born in countries hostile to Israel. Yet Jews born in those same hostile countries can visit Israel and immigrate without a problem. 

Balekdjian, conscious of the double standard, appealed to the Israeli Interior ministry with little effect. “I went to the Interior Ministry twice a week for almost a year, most times I couldn’t even get through the door.” 

“My wife is not Muslim, not a terrorist, not a threat to Israel,” said Balekdjian. “Yet as Christians we were not allowed to live here.”  He said the Armenian Church even tried to sponsor his wife with a job, but the Israelis said no.

Part of the growing exodus of Christians leaving the holy land for better lives, Balekdjian, feels guilty for leaving his family and Jerusalem behind. But, he “really didn’t have a choice but to join his wife,” according to his mother, Angel Balekdjian.

Cradling a framed photo of Balekdjian and his wife in the sitting room of her stone house, his mother said, “Christians will finish from here, slowly. Slowly we will go.”

Community marginalized
Prior to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Christians migrated from communities in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon to live near the holy sites in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem and support the churches.

Business transactions, marriages and family ties connected Christian communities of the Near and Middle East. The Christian communities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem drew population, resources and income from Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and Aleppo. These relationships and resources were severed when the Israelis took control.

Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors and nearly 10 years of conflict with Palestinian Muslims have done more to isolate, marginalize and drive off the Christian population. 

Furthermore, when Bethlehem’s Christians leave the holy land they often cannot come back. The reason is not Israel – but fellow Palestinians. As Christians leave their homes to work abroad, Palestinian Muslims sometimes move in to seize their property and land. 

For years, Christians have been complaining to the Palestinian Authority with little effect.  

With scarce resources shared between the Christian and Muslim communities, some Christians say they are easy targets for their Muslim brothers who control the government and militant organizations. 

“Even though Christians are represented in Palestinian government,” says Bethlehem University professor Manuel Hassassian, “they have no actual political power. Christian clout doesn’t exist.”

Bethlehem hemmed in by wall
A charismatic man with a calm disposition, Bethlehem’s Christian mayor, Hannah Nasser, becomes distressed around the holidays, especially Christmas. 

Strolling the sparsely decorated streets, he cannot fathom how the Christian world’s attention could be focused annually on his town and people, yet its predicament is ignored. 

“I’m a mayor of a jail,” exclaimed Nasser. “Christmas or not, Bethlehem is a big prison.”

Surrounded by 78 physical barriers including concrete roadblocks, 10 Israeli military checkpoints, 55 dirt mounds and a soon to be completed 39 mile-long security wall, the “little town of Bethlehem” of Christmas songs is an isolated, stagnant and depressing place. 

Israeli soldiers on foot patrol, in jeeps and in watchtowers monitor and restrict almost all pedestrian and vehicle traffic in and out of town. 

Nasser said Israel’s zeal to stop potential attacks by Palestinian Muslims from Bethlehem is so great that “if Joseph and Mary tried to come today, Israeli soldiers would check their papers, rummage through their baggage and rudely turn them away.”

Scratching his balding pate, Nasser said he can’t rationalize Israel’s need for security at the expense of human rights, the rights of his people. 

“The mood is not joyful, no one is really out in the streets celebrating,” he said. “Bethlehem is still under siege.” 

Nasser fears that if the economic and social blockade continues, Bethlehem’s Christian community will leave. “If things don’t change in a generation, all that will be left is the stone churches and the priests who occupy them.”

Nothing left but lonely shopkeepers
According to a recent study, published by the United Nations, Israeli security restrictions and the construction of its security wall around Bethlehem has led to the closure of 72 of 80 businesses on the main thoroughfare into town. 

Most of these businesses were owned and operated by Christians.  In some cases, Israel seized Christian land and property. 

The study also cited a staggering drop-off in the tourist trade, the life’s blood of this biblical town. 

In the past four years, the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem per month has dropped from 91,726 to 7,249. Driving along the streets, even at Christmas time, it is not uncommon to see rows of businesses and homes either abandoned or boarded up.

Bethlehem’s economy is so poor, restaurant owner George Nazar has resorted to giving away free cups of coffee. 

“I’m lonely all day,” said Nazar, “if I charge for the coffee, the people might not come to my restaurant.” 

Nazar says he’s lucky to see five customers in a day, and they rarely buy food.  

“No one has money,” cried Nazar, tears welling up in his eyes. “I don’t make enough to pay the rent; I don’t know how I’m going to buy Christmas presents for my kids.” 

“Times are tough, and will remain tough for Christians here,” said an old Muslim shopkeeper, afraid of giving his name. 

Surrounded by shelves of religious icons and countertops strewn with souvenirs imported from China, the shopkeeper shifted his weight and said, “only a peace between the Jews and the Muslims will help the Christians.” Otherwise, he recommended deceit.

“Please lie to the people,” he begged. “Write an article saying Bethlehem is safe and peaceful this Christmas," he said. "Only the tourists, with their money, can save the Christians, save us all.”

Ara Ayer is an NBC News producer based in Tel Aviv.

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