O Little Town: Christians Vacating Bethlehem

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Tourists are expected to return to Bethlehem in droves for Christmas, but many Christians living in the town of Jesus' birth want to leave.

Unpredictable -- that's how Israeli author and human rights lawyer Justus Weiner describes the plight of Christians in Bethlehem and the West Bank.

For years they've suffered from human rights violations such as land theft, beatings, and even forced marriages between Christian women and Muslim men.

The worst persecution has come against converts to Christianity.

"If they were born Muslim but they decided to find Jesus, this is like being a traitor to God," Weiner told CBN News. "There's very substantial chance they'll be beaten, forced to leave the country, or killed."

The threat against Christians from fellow Palestinians has subsided since the second Iintifadah (uprising) ended in 2005. The years of violence against Israel scuttled tourism and ruined the economy.

Now, Bethlehem expects a near record number of tourists this Christmas season, and many Christians are doing well financially.

But Weiner said believers are still subject to the whims of neighbors who could throw them in jail because they are Christian.

This kind of uncertainty and financial instability has forced many Christians to leave the Holy Land.

Those departures have depleted the Christian population of the Bethlehem area from a high of 80 percent to around 10 percent.

"It's my prediction that if the remaining Christians in the West Bank and Gaza -- Gaza only has maybe a thousand, 2,000 Christians -- if their needs are not addressed in 10 or 15 or at most 20 years, there won't be any Christians in the Cradle of Christianity," Weiner said. "This will be a kind of memorial, a museum."

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Julie Stahl

Julie Stahl

CBN News Mideast Correspondent

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