December 20, 1995
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EST (0130 GMT)
From Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- As Israeli troops prepare for their Thursday pullout from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, ending 28 years of occupation, the city that is among the holiest of Christian sites also is at risk of eventually losing its Christian residents, as well.
Bethlehem, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, today is a predominantly Muslim town, with 60 percent of its residents following Islam. Christians once made up 80 percent of the population, but are now less than half that.
Elias Freij, the town's Palestinian mayor, said Wednesday that the change is a result of years of emigration and low birth rates.
Many Palestinian Christians left because they feared their children might join the fighting between Muslims and Jews. Others left because the Israeli military occupation choked Bethlehem's economy, making jobs scarce. And now, the growing fear of Islamic extremism increases the Christian sense of isolation.
Christians complain they are publicly harassed and harangued for their faith. The Christian cemetery has been desecrated and vandalized.
At recent Friday prayers, Muslims spill into Manger Square because the mosques were so crowded. An imam declared "Allah brings victory." His fiery sermon mocked moderate Palestinian policies and called the upcoming Palestinian elections a farce.
Fights between young Christians and Muslims are not uncommon. Dragged away by a friend, one Christian boy said, "the Muslims are fascists, bad people."
Muslim families of 10 or 12 children leave smaller Christian families awash in an Islamic sea, afraid they will be overwhelmed by the refugee camps and Muslim villages around Bethlehem.
Many of the town's Christians are afraid to talk openly now. "There are squeezing us (out)," said one.
Muslims, for their part, complain they are discriminated against by Christians, who tend to be wealthier and better educated. "We feel the racism," one Muslim man said. "I hear what they say. There's racism against Muslims here." (77K AIFF sound or 77K WAV sound)
Christian store owners complain there's a de facto economic boycott. One store owner said 95 percent of his customers are Christians because Muslims tend to deal only with Muslim merchants. (60K AIFF sound or 60K WAV sound)
Adding to the anxiety is uncertainty over Yasser Arafat's new government. "We're in a transitional phase right now," said one Bethlehem resident. "No one really knows what's going to happen."
Words of uncertainty are increasingly heard among Bethlehem's Christian families, who feel abandoned by Christians elsewhere. Few believe there will be many Christians left in the city within five or six years.
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