Christian Exodus from Bethlehem

The Washington Post runs a big spread in its Dec. 22 edition under the headline, "What's missing in Bethlehem? Mayor urges tourists and Christians to return". The article, by Anne Marie O'Connor, tells readers that "for years, Palestinian Christians have been quietly abandoning the place where Jesus is said to have been born in a manger. Middle-class residents have packed their bags for less chaotic lives in Latin America, Europe and the United States."

From 90 percent Christian in the early 1900s, Bethlehem, a city of 22,000, today is more than two-thirds Muslim. "Thanks to an exodus of Christians," O'Connor writes. Bethlehem was 60 percent Christian in 1990, but Christians lost their majority in the 90s. By 2000, Christians accounted for only 40 percent of Bethlehem's population. By recent counts, Bethlehem today is only 15 percent Christian and 1,000 Christians leave every year.

So, what accounts for this Christian exodus from Bethlehem? O'Connor puts the onus on Israel -- "the Israeli military checkpoints and security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a 10-minute drive away... and Israeli settlements that are growing around Bethlehem," she tells readers.

But that's hardly the full story, and certainly not the real story. For starters, O'Connor fails to point out that there's a good reason for Israel's nearby security barrier and checkpoints. Bethlehem has for many years been a hotbed of Palestinian terrorist cells. Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of the city is a regular target for Palestinian stone-throwers and snipers.

Inside Bethlehem, life for Christians has gone from bad to worse -- and not because there are Jewish settlements in the vicinity. What O'Connor fails to point out is that Bethlehem Christians became persecution targets for Muslims once the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat assumed power in the city. Since then, Christians have been exposed to intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches, denial of employment, torture, kidnappings, forced marriages, and extortions.

None of this is mentioned in the Post article, as O'Connor tiptoes around actual reasons for the Christian exodus. She even finds an intimidated Bethlehem Christian, who prefers to avert his eyes to Muslim persecution of Christians in Bethlehem.-- "The narrative that we're leaving because the Muslim community treats us badly is a lie," he reassures O'Connor.

In the same paragraph, however, O'Connor acknowledges that the Bethlehem exodus is but part and parcel of a far wider outflow of Christians from the Middle East -- "an ongoing Christian exodus from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt." O'Connor, one assumes, also would deny Muslim persecution of Christian Copts in Egypt. The sad truth is that Christians in Bethlehem fare no better than Copts in Egypt.

Overall, her article is flawed by several gross omissions.

Not once does O'Connor cite an Israeli official to rebut the article's fault-finding of Israel -- a gross violation of basic journalistic standards. There also is no mention that Bethlehem is under Palestinian Authority rule, which means that Abbas is derelict in failing to exert responsibility for the safety of all Bethlehem inhabitants. And there is no mention that there is one important exception to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East -- one country where Christians actually are growing in numbers.

That country -- surprise -- happens to be Israel. In 1948, when Israel gained independence, there were 34,000 Christians in Israel. Today, that number has grown to about 150,000.

The underlying reality is that, under Palestinian rule, Christianity threatens to become a museum exhibit in Bethlehem, while it thrives and grows in the Jewish state.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers