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Church leaders estimate that about 45 Christian families emigrated from the area of Bethlehem in the past year, leading to a further erosion of Christianity in what is literally its birthplace. It is difficult to obtain a precise figure, as many of these families do not officially announce that they are emigrating; many just go, leaving behind their empty houses. From the 1950’s to the present, Bethlehem’s Christian population has fallen from more than 80 percent to around 12 percent of the population.

Christian sites in Bethlehem have also suffered. Consider the Cremisan Valley, for example, which is home to the largest winery in Palestine and two monasteries, with some of the region’s oldest and most cherished terraced landscapes. It has been carved through by an Israeli separation barrier, leading to the destruction of the landscapes that have survived for centuries and effectively erasing an important agricultural area to Christian families. Once the wall is completed, the town of Beit Jala, which falls under the Bethlehem district, will lose access to about two-thirds of its land.

Palestinians have also lost access to Rachel’s Tomb, located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem, a site holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. These changes are leading many Palestinian Christians to feel detached from the place, since they can no longer access sites closely connected to their identity.

“This town is not mine,” says Ramez Haimur, who used to be a scout. He now works two jobs a day to make ends meet. “I don’t feel at home here anymore. I don’t even recognize this place. I have no future here. It’s not like it used to be.”

As with many other young Christians, he offers a surprising answer if you ask him what it means to live the message of Jesus: silence. A number of Palestinian Christian youth have no answer when asked what it means to be a Christian or what it means to describe his or her Christian identity.

“It depends on whom I’m talking to, but I identify as Arab first, Palestinian second and then Christian,” says Rena Boulos, who works for a local nongovernmental agency.

Ms. Boulos says Christianity is part of her cultural and historical heritage, but she struggles with matters of faith.

“I believe Christianity is a form of identity just like we identify as Arabs or Palestinians. But I’m proud of being a Palestinian Christian! We were here since the beginning — well, since as far as can be traced back.”

Dr. Yousef Musallam, the leader of the Terra Santa Scouts in Bethlehem, expresses concern over a crisis of Christian identity among Palestinian youth, and says the scouts’ mission is to raise awareness among its members.

“As Christian scouts, we do our best to plant the seeds of faith amongst our members,” he says, adding, “[we] make sure they love their country and become good human beings and citizens.

“The bigger task, however, falls on other institutions such as the church, the municipality and the government. There’s only so much we [scouts] can do.”

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