Believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem is revered in the Christian faith and attracts more than a million pilgrims every year who come to pray at the famous Church of the Nativity. Here, visitors queue daily by the hundreds to enter a small rock grotto within which a 14-point silver star bears the words, “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est,” meaning “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.”
Seventy years ago, a significant number of Christians also called Bethlehem their permanent home, with the population of the West Bank city and surrounding villages nearly 90 percent Christian.
In 2016, the then-Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun warned that figure had dropped to 12 percent, or a mere 11,000 people.
Across the Palestinian Authority-administered West Bank, there are reported to be fewer than 50,000 Christians remaining, while in Gaza, which is ruled by the US-designated terrorist group Hamas, just 1,100 Christians are left.
The crisis facing Christians in the Holy Land has not gone unnoticed.
Last December, the British Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby jointly penned an opinion piece with Palestinian Anglican Bishop Hosam Naoum in which they lamented the decline of Christians in the birthplace of the religion, arguing that the actions of “radical groups” were responsible.
They explained that such acts had included the desecration of churches, in addition to physical and verbal attacks on priests, monks and worshipers.
Yet, Archbishop Welby and Bishop Naoum preferred to ignore the stark reality on the ground and blamed the precipitous decline of Christians to mysterious “fringe radical groups” and growing “settler communities.”
Such linguistic inexactitude masks the real reason Christians are disappearing in the Holy Land, which, according to global Christian charity Open Doors, is actually the result of “Islamic oppression.”
Warning that Christians were leaving the West Bank in droves, the charity revealed that “Islamic extremist militants” were leaving Christians in fear of attacks and said the situation was even more perilous for converts to the religion who face even worse brutality.
Another international nonprofit, The Voice of the Martyrs, which defends the rights of persecuted Christians, has collated numerous accounts of appalling torture meted out by the Palestinian Authority on its Christian minority.
One such testimony is that of Saif, a Christian convert from Islam who lives near Bethlehem. He described how after being labeled a “Zionist infidel” by the Muslim muezzin (crier) over the mosque loudspeaker, he was summoned to the local police station. For weeks, he endured horrific torture, including being hung upside down for hours on end, threats of crucifixion and violent interrogations.
Despite being released, Palestinian Authority forces continued to target him and eventually, Saif was forced to flee to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem using a pass he had been issued for his work as a contractor.
In the Gaza Strip, the situation for Christians is even bleaker under the rule of Islamist group Hamas.
This tiny minority’s plight is exemplified in the horrific tale of Rami Ayyad, who had owned Gaza’s last Christian bookstore until it was firebombed just months after Hamas seized power in 2006 and imposed Islamic Sharia Law.
Ayyad was kidnapped, tortured and later murdered by an assailant who walked away unpunished despite his identity reportedly being known to authorities.
The demise of Christianity in Palestinian-controlled areas is part of a more general pattern of Christians disappearing in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2019, a UK-commissioned report laid bare the scale of the problem, describing their dwindling numbers as “coming close to genocide.”
“Forms of persecution ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment and social life up to genocidal attacks against Christian communities have led to a significant exodus of Christian believers from this region since the turn of the century,” the report said.
“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. There have been regular crackdowns on private Christian services.”
The situation faced by Palestinian Christians is dire. Moreover, the situation will never improve if church leaders like Archbishop Welby fail to acknowledge its root cause.