TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis Draws Shrinking Christian Flock in Holy Land

Every space in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was filled for the papal visit on Sunday morning, but with the population of Palestinian Catholics dwindling, many Filipino and Indian guest workers made up the numbers

As much as the half-empty soccer stadium where Pope Francis gave a Mass in Jordan on Saturday, the Sunday morning scene at Bethlehem’s Manger Square spoke volumes about the declining population of Christians in the very place the faith was born.

Unlike the scene in Amman, where half of the seats in a 30,000-seat stadium went unfilled, there were no empty spaces in the plaza–some 9,000 congregants turned out in front the Church of the Nativity, built above the cave where the baby Jesus was said to have been laid in a manger.

But relatively few in the crowd were themselves born in the Holy Land. Laced heavily among the hardy native Palestinian Catholics were guest workers from India and the Philippines working in Israel, asylum seekers from Sudan, American tourists, pilgrims from Ghana, and a smattering of Palestinian Christians from other denominations.

Christians account for only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank’s 2.5 million population, and a similar proportion of Israel, where every fifth citizen is Palestinian. Historically, according to Hanna A. Amirah, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches in the Palestinian Authority, Christians accounted for every tenth resident in the region.

“We are few,” said Layla Zaid, sitting with her sister Nadia in the shade of the gift shop arcade off the square as Pope Francis entered. Greek Orthodox both, they had traveled by bus from the West Bank city of Ramallah with 150 others, including Romanian Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. “No problem,” Nadia says. “It’s for Christians.”

But there are fewer and fewer of them. Bethlehem itself is mostly Muslim today, the Christian population dwindling to perhaps 15 percent of the district.In the Gaza Strip, the Christian population is down to an estimated 1,250 in a population of 1.7 million. Half of them got permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank, and about 50 were clustered in Manger Square, holding a homemade sign reading: “With Great Love & Happiness GAZA Receives our Pope”

“Most of the Christians leave Gaza,” says Hanady Missak, deputy director of the Rosary Sisters School, a Christian private school of 850 students, only 78 of whom are Christian. The balance are Muslim. “They sell their houses and their lands and go to the United States or Australia or Canada.” The exodus accelerated after Hamas came to power in 2007, when Gaza had nearly three times as many Christians. But the man standing next to her, Suleiman Hana, had a similar story from the West Bank city of Nablus: Only 650 Christians remain, he says, including just three Catholic families.

Under such dire circumstances, the natives say they very much welcome the Filipino and Indian guest workers, many of whom share their faith. “One God for all,” says Hana. Israel admits the foreigners, if only for a few years, to do jobs that Israelis will not, mostly cleaning and caring for the elderly and disabled. Most are Catholic, and in some parts of the country they vastly outnumber their native Palestinian counterparts. The allotment of tickets for the Manger Square mass by the priests at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Jaffa tells the story: Arab members of the church got 100 tickets, Indian members 120 and Filipinos 250. Another 60 were divided between members from Sri Lanka and Sudan.

The guest workers say they are surprised to find Christians such a small minority in the Holy Land. “Sometimes this is strange,” says Teresa Paglinawen, who hails from the Philippines. “Sometimes they don’t understand us, how we like this place, its importance for us. We are foreigners working here so sometimes they cannot accept us, our religion and our faith.”

Who are “they”?

“Everyone – Jews, Muslims,” replies Ruby Tiongson, a fellow Filipina, joining the conversation.

“We are not angry, because it is their place,” says Paglinawen. “We rely on visiting here and working here. But they need to understand also, because this place has a holiness. Our savior was born here.”

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