- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Hundreds of Christians facing religious persecution and economic strangulation in Bethlehem have taken refuge in a Christian-only housing project built to dissuade them from fleeing abroad.

The recent opening of “God’s Tower Blocks” follows a modern-day exodus of Christians from the town of Jesus’ birth in the Palestinian West Bank, where the once-prosperous majority community is now an ever-dwindling minority.

There are 48 apartments in the twin towers, which have just been completed away from the center of Bethlehem, where some Christians say they face discrimination from ever more extremist Muslim elements.

“My son John couldn’t even play with Muslim boys,” said Mirvat Murqus, a 34-year-old mother of three. “They hit him and called him names. My children were afraid. I couldn’t leave them for a minute. Two years ago in church the father said if anyone was having problems, they should apply to him [for housing]. I think maybe there were thousands of applications.”

The plight of Christians in Bethlehem, and farther afield in the Middle East, was highlighted last week by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who blamed the British and American intervention in Iraq for putting the safety of Christians at unprecedented risk across the region.

“The first Christian believers were Middle Easterners. It’s a very sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region,” Mr. Williams said on a trip during which he prayed at the Bethlehem grotto where Jesus is thought to have been born. He said extremist attacks on Christians were becoming “notably more frequent.”

Last month the Rev. Amjad Sabbara, of St. Catherine’s Franciscan Church, which is behind the $2 million housing development, told Mrs. Murqus and her husband, Julius, that they had been selected to move into a glistening apartment.

“Of course we were delighted when our names were chosen,” said Mrs. Murqus, as her children played in front of the Christmas tree. Had they not been, she said, her family might well have joined the stream of Christians leaving — or being hounded out of — the world’s most celebrated “little town.”

“I have four aunts, and they have all left for America. My sister has left for Canada,” she said. “Before we got this apartment, she kept telling us to join her there, but now she is happy we got this place.”

In the office of St. Catherine’s, parish secretary Victor Baboun knows all about the temptations to move away.

“Hundreds of families have left in the past few years,” he said. “Even my own sister and brother have moved away, so the [apartments] are a way of rooting the Christian population in town.”

Mr. Baboun said that of Bethlehem district’s 60,000-strong population, about 12,000 were Christian, or 20 percent. That is a dramatic decline from 50 years ago, when Christians represented more than 90 percent of the town’s residents.

But it is not only the rising tensions between Palestinian Christian and Muslims that is driving people to flee.

“The reasons are not just political,” said Mr. Baboun. “They are also economic.”

The tourist and pilgrim trade has plunged since 2000, when the second violent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began.

“My husband is a merchant,” said Mrs. Murqus. “The church subsidizes our rent, and if we can’t pay, they are happy to wait.”

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