"O little town of Bethlehem," a Christmas carol that resonates with many Christians, refers to the town where, according to their religion, many think Jesus was born. And for years believers would celebrate Christmas in the town. But not this year. The hotels and shops, mainly owned by Christian Arabs are mostly empty. Why?
The town's Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.
There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs.
Meanwhile, the breakdown in security is putting off tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town's hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Who is the cause of these problems? The Moslem Arabs. The situation has become even worse since last year when, from the distance, the British archbishop of Canterbury and the resident Greek Orthodox cleric, blamed the Israelis--naturally--and the security barrier Israel erected to keep out murderous terrorists, for the decrease in tourists to Manger Square, for the precarious situation of the remaining Christians in general. That about half of the terrorists came from the peaceful town of Bethlehem didn't bother them at all.
Bethlehem's hotel owners estimate that tourist numbers have dropped sharply, from 91,276 each month for the millennium celebrations in 2000 to little more than 1,500 a month now.
During the past six years, 50 restaurants, 28 hotels and 240 souvenir shops have closed.
But this year, realizing such appeasement won't work--persecution against the town's remaining, and shrinking Christian population is increasing, in desperation
... the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, are to lead a joint delegation to Bethlehem this week to express their solidarity with the beleaguered Christian populace.
The town, according to the Cardinal, is being "steadily strangled".
The sense of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism is all around in Bethlehem.
A mosque on one side of Manger Square stands directly opposite the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, while in the evening the muezzin's call to prayer clashes with the peal of church bells.
Shops selling Santa Claus outfits and mother-of-pearl statuettes of the Virgin Mary have their shutters painted a sun-bleached green, the colour of Islam.
And in the Al-Jacir Palace, Bethlehem's only luxury hotel, there is a baubled Christmas tree in reception and a card showing the direction of Mecca in the rooms.
Oh sure, as usual, the religious dignitaries will again blame the Israelis. And in the meantime, the manager of the Christian radio station prepares to leave because
As Christians, we have no future here," he says. "We are melting away.