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No princely words about Christian exodus from Bethlehem

Prince Charles has stepped into the volatile arena of Middle Eastern politics by calling the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria an "indescribable tragedy." The prince said that faith leaders and governments must honour people's rights to practise their faith as he referred to the dire situation for Christians and other minority groups created by the civil war and the arrival of ISIS in the region.

However, the heir to the British throne, who will carry the title of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England if and when he becomes king, stopped short of talking about the plight of the oldest Christian flock in the region, the "Living Stones" in Palestine.

There is no doubt that the situation for Christians, and just about everyone else who crosses ISIS, is "heart-breaking", but so is that of the fast-disappearing Christian community in Gaza and the West Bank, especially Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, peace be upon him.

Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have largely been driven out through Israeli persecution and the Apartheid Wall which snakes its way around the town. The latter makes it impossible, for example, for Palestinians to travel the ten kilometres to Jerusalem's Old City unless they have special written permission from the Israeli occupation authorities.

Before 1948, a reference point for so many Palestinians, 85 per cent of the population in Bethlehem was Christian but by 2000 this figure had dropped by more than half; thousands continue to leave their homeland for a new life elsewhere every year. This is precisely what the Israelis want, of course; as many Palestinians as possible leaving their land never to return.

Sadly these shocking statistics, revealing the full extent of the Christian exodus from this historic place, have failed to move the Prince of Wales to speak out in public. Surely, he can be in no doubt that the blame for their departure lies squarely with Israel, just as the civil war in Iraq and Syria is responsible for the decimation of the Christian population there.

In 2006 an independent survey commissioned by Open Bethlehem canvassed 1,000 respondents living in the ancient district and confirmed that large numbers of the indigenous Christian population have gone since the construction of the Apartheid Wall and the subsequent economic crisis. Almost 80 per cent of Bethlehem's Christians blame the exodus on Israel's blockade, while more than 90 per cent said that they believe that the wall has less to do with Israeli "security" and more to do with Israel confiscating Palestinian land.

Every day they experience the humiliation of being held at Israeli checkpoints; many have had their land confiscated to accommodate the Wall while the illegal occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands continues. All of this has led to a denial of access to basic services, unemployment, poverty and a bleak outlook for the future of Bethlehem's young people. Despite Zionist propaganda that it is Palestinian Muslims who are the cause of the Christian migration the survey showed that 90 per cent of Christians have Muslim friends, and vice-versa.

Meanwhile the Israeli government and its Christian allies in the West remain in denial that the Apartheid Wall has divided communities and families. There is no acknowledgement that the construction cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem despite the evidence from a large proportion of Christians in Bethlehem accusing the Zionist state of treating their Christian heritage with brutal indifference. The silence of church authorities in Britain and elsewhere is deafening and shameful.

It is a situation which resonates today with Muslims, who are prevented by checkpoints and roadblocks from going to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are also denied basic religious freedoms by being routinely banned from travelling a few short miles to worship in one of their most holy of sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, built on the site where, they believe, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The Bethlehem poll, which was carried out by the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue, also showed that 73.3 per cent of the city's Christians believed that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage with respect.

Leila Sansour, Open Bethlehem's Chief Executive, said at the time: "Our survey of Bethlehem's own citizens shows that the city cannot retain this heritage and its Christian community while the wall remains. The choice is stark. Either the wall stays and Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town, or Bethlehem retains its Christian population, in which case the wall has to come down. The international community needs to wake up to what is happening and choose."

Sadly her pleas were largely ignored and today the Apartheid Wall still looms ever large while the oldest flock in the Christian world continues to diminish in size with around 1,000 of the remaining 22,000 Christians leaving every year.

Bethlehem has nurtured the very roots of Christianity for two millennia but now it seems that the continuous Christian presence in the land called "holy" by much of the rest of the world is under threat. The Living Stones will soon be no more unless something is done, and soon.

As the future "Defender of the [Christian] Faith" in Britain, the Prince of Wales has every right to make his views known. While his comments on the religious communities fleeing Iraq and Syria are to be applauded and welcomed, those Christians living a stone's throw from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem must be wondering why he has remained silent over their plight.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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