By Khalid Amayreh
Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is losing many of its young Christians who, reeling under the yoke of the Israeli occupation and economic hardships, are seeking a better life abroad.
"They can’t easily adapt to the hardships associated with the stressful situation stemming from the Israeli occupation," Dr. Jamal Khadr, a priest at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told IslamOnline.net.
In recent decades, thousands of Christians left the occupied West Bank for a new life abroad, especially in North and South America, Australia, Scandinavia and even Africa.
No precise statistics are available as to the exact number, though it is widely believed to be significantly high.
According to figures compiled by the UN, about one-tenth of the Christian population in Bethlehem and the adjacent towns of Beit Jalla and and Beit Sahour has moved in recent years.
Dr. Khadr, also a professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Latin Seminary, says most of the emigrants are young Christians who are distressed by occupation and crises.
They largely travelled to North America and Sweden, where usually some family members had previously settled.
Nabil Kukali, a professor of education and public opinion pollster, agrees that the stressful conditions under the Israeli occupation are forcing many young Christians to migrate.
"These young people want to build a future for themselves and this is very hard to do here," explains Kukali, a Christian himself.
About 50,000 Christians live in the West Bank, Al-Quds (occupied East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip, according to MP Bernard Sabella, a former Professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University.
Christians make up less than 1.5 percent of the total population inside the occupied Palestinian territories, 10 percent of Israeli Arabs and slightly more than 6 percent of the world’s Palestinian population of more than 9 million.
The tough economic conditions in the occupied territories, aggravated by the strangling occupation, are a major factor in making migration decisions.
"Palestinian Christians are economically better off than most other Palestinians," notes Khadr.
"They are generally accustomed to a certain pattern of bourgeoisie life."
He insists that emigration is not confined to Christians and that Muslims, too, are moving out.
Khadr explains, however, that emigration within the Christian community is more conspicuous due to the small size of the community.
Mazen Qumsiyeh, an American-Palestinian professor of genetics and former academic at Yale University, says pressures on Muslims are just as daunting but Christians are more economically able to find a way out.
"Both are subject to the same pressures," he told IOL.
"Christian are usually more economically and in other ways, language, church and other connections, able to leave than their fellow compatriots who are Muslim."
Unsettled by the phenomenal shrinkage of their community, Christian leaders are trying to find ways and means to encourage mainly young Christian males to resist the temptation of emigration.
"The only way to prevent a further deterioration is by discouraging emigration and encouraging people to stay through lasting incentives," a Greek Orthodox clergyman told IOL.
He added that the exodus has created a serious social imbalance.
"Today in Bethlehem there are two or three young [Christian] females for every young [Christian] male within the marriage age, and that is a real problem."
Christian organizations in the West Bank, subsidized by Christian groups abroad, have been making strenuous efforts to encourage potential emigrants to stay home.
They are offering young Christians financial assistance in housing, education and in maintaining businesses.
Christian or mainly Christian institutions of higher education, such as the Catholic University of Bethlehem, also try to help in resisting the phenomenon of emigration.
"There is a real problem, and it won’t go away just by talking about it," says Kukali, the education professor.
"I believe that the Palestinian Authority should create work opportunities here and enhance the overall psychological atmosphere."
He notes that for some Christians, fleeing is just not an option.
"I was born here, my father is buried here, and my grandfather is also buried here. So I am staying here. I have no other homeland.
"I am Palestinian and will always be Palestinian."