- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The death threat came on simple white fliers blowing down the streets at dawn. A group calling itself “Friends of Muhammad” accused a local Palestinian Christian of selling cell phones with offensive sketches of the Muslim prophet.

The Oct. 19 message went on to curse all Arab Christians and Pope Benedict XVI, still struggling to calm Muslim outrage from his remarks on Islam.

While neighbors defended the merchant — saying the charges were bogus — the frightened phone dealer went into hiding, not reassured when authorities dismissed the message as a harmless rant.

Now the dealer is thinking of going abroad.

Call it a modern exodus, the steady flight of the Palestinian Christian minority that could lead, some predict, to the faith being virtually extinct in its birthplace within several generations — just one of many dwindling pockets of Christianity across the Islamic world.

This will be a major theme the pope is expected to carry to Turkey for a four-day visit beginning Nov. 28 — his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim nation. The Vatican calls it “reciprocity”: Muslim demands for greater sensitivity from the West must be accompanied by stronger protections and rights for Christian minorities in Islamic strongholds.

In some places, such as Pakistan, that means more safeguards from extremist attacks. In Indonesia and elsewhere, it touches on appeals to curb sectarian clashes. In Turkey, Iraq and much of the Middle East, it seeks to preserve communities dating back to the days when Jesus’ first apostles preached.

But nearly everywhere in Muslim lands, Christian populations are in decline.

No place is this more striking than in the Holy Land.

For decades, it was mostly economic pressures pushing Palestinian Christians to emigrate, using family ties in the West or contacts from missionary schools. The Palestinian uprisings — and the separation barrier started by Israel in 2002 — accelerated the departures by turning once-bustling pilgrimage sites such as Bethlehem into relative ghost towns.

The growing strength of radical Islamic movements has added new worries. During the protests after the pope’s remarks in September, some of the worst violence was in Palestinian areas with churches firebombed and hit by gunfire.

“Most of the Christians here are either in the process of leaving, planning to leave or thinking of leaving,” said Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based peace group. “Insecurity is deep and getting worse.”

The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from 15 percent or more a half-century ago, by some estimates. Meanwhile, the Muslim Palestinian birthrate is among the highest in the world.

Dire predictions abound. The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land said Christians could become “extinct” in the region within 60 years.

“It certainly doesn’t look good for us,” said Mike Salman, a Palestinian Christian who has conducted studies on demographic trends.

A walk along Shepherd Street puts a face to the lament.

Hannah Qumsieh spends his days playing Internet poker, fretting about unpaid bills and trimming his lemon trees at his house overlooking the field where the Bible says an angel told shepherds of the birth of Jesus. Mr. Qumsieh retired from the Palestinian tourism office last year, but has received no pension checks since the militant faction Hamas won elections in January and the West slashed aid to the Palestinian Authority.

“If I had money to leave, I would,” he said, casting a glance at the newly built white stone house next door in Beit Sahour, one of the last Christian-dominated enclaves in the West Bank. Bethlehem, just up the hill, is now less than 20 percent Christian.

Some are trying to change the momentum.

Groups dedicated to Muslim-Christian cooperation are active. During the protests over Benedict’s remarks, militiamen from Islamic Jihad vowed to protect a West Bank church. A poll released Oct. 18 by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found 91 percent of respondents opposed attacking churches to protest the pope’s comments.

Palestinian Christians — dominated by Greek Orthodox and Latin Rite churches loyal to the pope — now face sharp questions about whether their hearts lie in their homeland or in the West. It gets even more complicated because of the strong support for Israel and Jewish settlers from American evangelical Christians.

“We are stuck in no man’s land,” said a leading Palestinian Christian activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of reported death threats. “In the eyes of the West, we are Arabs. In the eyes of Arabs, we are a fifth column.”

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