JERUSALEM, Israel - Thousands of Christians from Iraq and other countries are leaving the Middle East because of persecution, violence and economic hardship.
Perhaps the most alarming exodus is occurring in the Holy Land -- the birthplace of Christianity.
A Disturbing Trend
Jerusalem is a land of conflict and strife, security fences and checkpoints, a land where three faiths -- Christianity, Islam, and Judaism -- intersect.
"From this country our faith began and in this country our whole essence of Christianity was started in this area of the world," explained Steven Khory of Calvary Jerusalem Baptist Church.
Yet it's a place where the Christian minority is disappearing.
"You feel like somebody is choking you and there is no way out," Palestinian Christian Rani Espionoli said. "You need to get out of here and find something else."
Tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims come to Via Dolorosa each year to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and visit other Christian holy sites.
Yet, many Christians who actually live in the Holy Land are leaving and some fear the area could eventually become a "Christian Disneyland," where believers routinely visit, but never stay.
It's an alarming trend. About 45,000 Christians lived in Jerusalem in 1940. Now, there are less than 10,000.
From Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, Christians are leaving by the thousands. Those now living in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank total only about 150,000 -- less than 2 percent of the population.
"If that Christian exodus continues who's left in the houses of worship here?" Brian Bush, president of the Christian Foundation for the Holy Land, questioned. "There's no voice to praise God. It's just empty stones and monuments and museums and that would be a tragedy."
Espionoli says many believers are leaving because of harsh treatment. He works in Nazareth and says some of his Christian friends have been assaulted and had their cars and homes vandalized.
"Some people, they get persecuted physically, verbally," he said. "This is something (that is) getting tougher... not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but it is moving also to the Christians up in the north and in Israel... Jerusalem, and in the Galilee area."
Islamic militants murdered Gaza Christian bookstore manager Rami Ayyad in 2007. Less than a year later, Israeli Messianic teen Ami Ortiz miraculously survived a mail bomb attack by a Jewish extremist.
There have been less deadly, but also troubling, attacks against Jerusalem's Calvary Baptist Church. The church playground has been vandalized repeatedly.
Pastor Khory said church signs have been torn down and Christians harassed. Despite ongoing pressure, he's determined to persevere.
"God puts you in the right place at the right time for the right reason," Khory said. "We must stay and we must take a stand as more and more Christians are leaving the country.
"We must stay behind," he continued. "Somebody has to."
A Rock and a Hard Place
CBN News spoke with Bishop Twal, the leader of one Catholic church in Jerusalem, about Christians leaving Jerusalem. He said he believes the exodus is due to increased violence and conflict.
"It is not persecution. It is a consequence of a bad situation, of a conflict that pits Arabs and Israel face to face and we are between these two peoples," Twal said.
Twal said he believes Palestinian Christians will return to the Holy Land once there is peace. In the meantime, groups like the Christian Foundation for the Holy Land are working to keep Christians in the country.
Some have left because they lack jobs. However, restoration projects like Jerusalem's Ecce Homo Basilica could provide employment. Ecce Homo is thought to be the spot where Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilot and scourged by Roman soldiers.
One Christian worker told CBN News he plans to stay in the Holy Land.
"I see Christians from all over the world coming here, but I was born here and I have decided to remain here and teach my children about it and what it means for us as Christians," he said.
Sister Trudy Navuurs is with the Ecce Homo Convent.
"Once they have work, it is an incentive to stay because as you know they are very family oriented people. And so, they really don't want to leave," she explained.
Bishop Twal wants Christians worldwide to encourage Palestinian Christians to remain.
"They can find work and so on in Central America and elsewhere," he said. "[But] they will never find another Holy Land. They will never find their religious roots... only here we have our roots."
*Originally broadcast on May 7, 2010.