Majeda El Batch
Agence France Presse (AFP)
April 22, 2011 - 12:00am

If you build it, they will come -- or perhaps just stay. That's the hope of the Christian leadership in Jerusalem, which is building homes in a bid to stem an exodus of Christians.

While the Holy City draws hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims, particularly over Easter when they come to retrace the steps Jesus took to his crucifixion, much of the city's small Christian population would rather leave.

As a religious minority, they are often caught up in the tussle between the city's much larger Jewish and Muslim communities and also suffer the same daily challenges as the wider Palestinian population.

One of the chief problems is the lack of affordable housing, leading the Latin Patriarchate, which represents the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, and several Franciscan monasteries to team up to create new, affordable housing for Christians in Arab east Jerusalem.

They hope that by creating new housing options for Christian Palestinians, fewer will chose to join the hundreds who leave the Holy Land permanently every year.

"The Patriarchate is doing this to help Palestinians stay here rather than emigrating," Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem told AFP.

Shomali said 72 housing units had already been built in Beit Safafa and another eight are awaiting approval in this Arab neighbourhood in annexed east Jerusalem which lies just a few miles from the southern city of Bethlehem.

Each home, which measures 110 square metres (1,184 square feet) will cost around $260,000, he said.

"It took us about 15 years to get the building permits from the Jerusalem municipality," Shomali said, despite the fact that getting permits for collective housing is "much easier" than getting a permit for individual homes.

Figures provided by the Catholic Church indicate that 10,000 Christians of all denominations live in east Jerusalem, which has a total population of 450,000, making them vastly outnumbered by the city's Muslim and Jewish residents.
That number represents around 20 percent of the total number of Christians living in all the Palestinian territories -- which stands at around 50,000.

Most belong to the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches, although others belong to the Armenian, Syrian or Assyrian Orthodox communities. There are also a number from the Protestant community.

"The exodus of Christians from the Palestinian territories has become a worrying phenomenon of late," said Hanna Issa, who is responsible for Christian affairs at the Palestinian ministry of religions.

"According to the most recent statistics, about 600 Christians from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza emigrate each year," he told AFP.

"Between 1967 and 1992, around 13,000 Christians left the Palestinian territories -- around 8,000 from the West Bank and 5,000 from Gaza," he said.

Issa said the free-falling Christian population could have a direct effect on the perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"If Israel forced Christians to leave the country, it would cause a problem with the West, but if they emigrate by choice, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will look like a Muslim-Jewish conflict," he said.

Non-Christian families face the same push factors, and between 2005 and 2009, an estimated 32,000 Palestinians emigrated from the occupied territories, figures released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics last year showed.

Father Firas Hijazin of the Latin Patriarchate told AFP another housing project in the Shayya neighbourhood on the Mount of Olives was now home to 68 young couples or low-income families who had moved in last November.

"We want to keep the people of this country here and to stop the exodus of Christians, which continues today," he said.

Samir Hodli, who now lives in one of houses in Shayyah, said he was "comfortable" and more than happy with the price.

He pays 1,300 shekels a month -- around $380 or 260 euros -- for a 130-square metre apartment, which is a steep discount on the $800 he was paying before.

For Anton Rabadi, who moved into the Shayyah project from a home in the Old City, the change was difficult but worthwhile.

"Life was very hard in the Old City, although we really loved it. But here, the house is 130 square metres which is twice the size of our old place."

Father Hijazin has no illusions that this housing project will make a huge impact on the numbers leaving Jerusalem and said other groups must pull together with their own initiatives to stem the flood.

"There are many things that push people out, including a lack of work and schooling, high taxes, the high cost of living," he told AFP.

"Helping people out with housing is only a small piece of assistance in the face of the difficult challenges of life in Jerusalem.


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