Christmas came a few days early for the Palestinians of Bethlehem in 1995, as thousands of residents filled the town's Manger Square to celebrate the city’s transfer from Israeli to Palestinian control as part of the Oslo Accords.

In a simple ceremony on December 22, 1995, Maj.-Gen. Gabi Ophir, then-head of the IDF’s Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and Gen. Haj Ismail Jabr, then-head of the Palestinian Authority Police in the West Bank made the transfer of authority official. With some 45,000 residents, Bethlehem was the sixth West Bank city to come under Palestinian rule in accordance with the Oslo Accords, following Jericho, Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, and Kalkilya.

Jabr said that Israeli visitors would have nothing to fear in the city and invited Israelis to visit. He said residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, adjacent to Bethlehem, and of the settlements near Bethlehem had nothing to fear, since the PA Police would keep order. "I hope it will be a happy Christmas, a festival of peace for everyone," Jabr said.

Following the ceremony, crowds pulled down a fence surrounding the police station at Manger Square, as reported by The Jerusalem Post at the time. Throughout the town, church bells rang and fireworks sporadically lit up the sky over the square, which was jammed with merrymakers, vendors selling kebab and cotton candy and groups of boys dancing in circles to recorded music.

The Post reported that pictures of then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat decorated many windows and the facades of numerous buildings, and along Manger Street, men dressed as Santa Claus passed out candy to children.

But not everyone was infected with holiday cheer. The handover was met by a right-wing protest on Christmas Day when some 1,200 opponents of the Oslo Accords gathered just outside the city limits, rallying under the banner "We have come to dispel the darkness,” and vowing that Israel would regain control of the city. The coalition of right-wing political parties and groups had originally planned to light Hanukka candles outside Rachel's Tomb in order to show that Jews have not have not given up their right to the city but when the government made it known it would not allow such a rally, they shifted the site to the Mar Elias monastery, just north of Bethlehem. Throughout the rally there were sporadic cheers of "Rachel's Tomb, Rachel's Tomb."

The Christian community, by and large, kept quiet about the change that was sweeping the birthplace of Jesus Christ, although interreligious affairs expert Israel Lippel alleged at the time that many church and lay Christian leaders privately expressed their fears of falling under the control of Muslim Palestinians, but were unwilling to say anything publicly.

Seventeen years after those jubilant scenes, many Christians are concerned by their dwindling numbers in the city. Once comprising the majority of Bethlehem's population, in 1948, some 85% of the city was Christian. Over time, however, their numbers have steadily dwindled. 

Since 1995, the Christian population in Bethlehem has shrunk from 20,000 to some 7,500. The second Intifada that stretched from 2000 to 2005, in which time Bethlehem became a hotbed of terrorism, saw a wave of emigration. During that time the Christian community was also shaken by the siege of the Church the Nativity which saw a five-week stand-off between IDF troops and Palestinian terrorists. Moreover, the Israeli security wall built around the city in 2005 in order to fight terror, has also been cited as a factor driving Christians away.

In 2005, Bethlehem mayor Dr. Victor Batarseh said: "Due to the stress, either physical or psychological, and the bad economic situation, many people are emigrating, either Christians or Muslims, but it is more apparent among Christians, because they already are a minority, and it is because it is easier for a Christian family to emigrate, because they have family abroad already, in the US in South or Central America, or Australia, or Canada."

A year later, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, "I have spent the last two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem... there are some signs of disturbing anti-Christian feeling among parts of the Muslim population, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence. But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the 'security fence' which almost chokes the shrinking town..."

Anthony Habash, regional director for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation told The Media Line this year that economic effects of the occupation alongside movement restrictions posed by the security barrier and roadblocks, have caused Christians to seek education and employment elsewhere. 

And earlier this year, the issue was catapulted into the spotlight by CBS reporter Bob Simon's "60 Minutes" documentary entitled "Christians of the Holy Land," in which he attributed the dwindling Christian numbers to the occupation, particularly focusing on the security barrier and checkpoints. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michel Oren tried to intervene, contacting the network during the making of the film, concerned that Simon would do a "hatchet job."

In an interview with Simon, Oren countered that the major problem facing Christians in the Jerusalem and the West Bank is "duress" posed by Islamic extremism.
 
The Jerusalem Post
's Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh wrote on the Gatestone Institute website in 2009 that, while Israeli security measures have indeed made living conditions more difficult for both Christians and Muslims, "to say that these measures are the main and sole reason for the Christian exodus from the Holy Land is misleading."

Toameh argued that the root to Christian emigration is a combination of factors, including Muslim intimidation and land theft, discrimination in public sector employment, abuse, and economic hardships. He identified a key problem as being that many Palestinian Christian leaders feel insecure and intimidated by their Muslim neighbors, but "refuse to the see the reality as it is" and place the blame squarely on Israel when they speak on the record.

Echoing the mayor's comments' he also said that many find it easier to integrate into Christian-dominated societies in the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America, where they have relatives and friends.

The Christian community's future in Bethlehem is foggy, but this week Christians will be coming not going, as the city gears up to host the thousands of tourists that flock to the city every year to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.

Herb Keinon and The Jerusalem Post archives contributed to this report

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