Economically, the Holy Land’s tiny Christian minority is thriving as its moves into the holiday season this year. But, except for a one-time boost from a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, their numbers are barely growing and they face petty discrimination in the streets and from the government.

In the birthplace of Jesus, the Christian population is shrinking. Israel counted just 154,500 Christians at the end of 2011, or just 2 percent of the the population, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Thursday. Most of them are concentrated in the Galilee, but even there they are outnumbered by Muslims. In Nazareth, they number 22,200 out of a population of about 73,000. In Jerusalem they make up just 11,600 of the city’s nearly 800,000 residents.

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The vast majority of Christians in Israel are Arabs or Palestinians, which puts them into an awkward position in the region’s complicated dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although they are accorded equal rights, Israel increasingly sees itself as a Jewish state as well as a democracy while Palestinian nationalism, once officially secular, has grown increasingly Islamist.

The country's Christians are a diverse population of Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Roman Catholics and Syrian Orthodox.

Although the number of Christians in Israel grew in the 1990s as Russian Christians joined Jewish relatives who immigrated to Israel, the birthrate in the Christian population of 2.1 children per woman in 2011 was barely at the replacement level. Among Muslims, the rate is 3.8 and among Jews 3.0.

But Christians are in some ways better off economically than Israel’s majority-Jewish population. They do better in the national matriculation exams, with some 62% of them passing in 2010 compared with 58% of the Jewish population and 46% of Muslims. The unemployment rate for Christians, at 4.9%, is lower than for the general population.

But Christians have also been subjected to being spit upon in the streets of Jerusalem by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have strong memories of persecution by Christians in Europe over the centuries. Christians complain that the Interior Ministry, which has been controlled for many years by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, makes it difficult for them to get citizenship papers, visa and other vital documents.

Last August, the ministry refused to renew the residency permit of the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem on accusations of forgery, which the Bishop denied. No charges against the bishop were filed and he remained in Jerusalem

Nearly a decade ago, Muslims fought a bitter battle with their Christian neighbors in Nazareth for the right to build a mosque beside the Basilica of the Annunciation, a conflict that drew the interest of the Vatican, the White House, and an international coalition of Catholic and Protestant Christian church groups.

But these incidents, said Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, do not reflect the general state of inter-communal relations. On the whole relations with the Jewish majority are “relatively good,” said Kronish whose ICCI serves as an umbrella group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations promoting mutual understanding.

“The tensions are not over religion, they are over nationalism,” Kronish told The Media Line. “That doesn’t means there is a lot of love and understanding. But if you wanted to compare that to anti-Muslin sentiment by Jews, there is no comparison. Jews don’t think Christians are involved in the conflict. When they think Palestinians, they think Muslims.”

In Palestinian-ruled areas, their situation is arguably worse and their numbers are shrinking. Approximately 98% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are Sunni Muslims. Although the ruling Palestinian Authority takes no official census by religion, a 2008 demographic survey conducted by local Christian groups estimated there were about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and between 1,000 and 3,000 in Gaza.

A US State Department report on religious freedom, released last September, cited Christian leaders as saying that Palestinian Christian emigration has accelerated since 2001, about the time that the second Intifada broke out. That, together with lower birth rates, has reduced their numbers.

Anthony Habash, regional director for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, attributed the emigration to economic factors stemming from Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza and he said the outflow had gradually slowed.

In particular, he points to the security barrier Israel has been constructing on or close to the lines separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank as well as the network of roadblocks across the West Bank, which are designed to prevent terrorist attacks but have the effect of limiting Palestinian movement.

“Many young people are seeking to find jobs abroad in Dubai or North America,” Habash told The Media Line. “They also are looking for study opportunities. After the building of the wall, for many young people it became easier to study abroad in Jordan or elsewhere. Then they decide to stay outside Palestine.”

The IDF announced on Monday that special measures to ease the movement of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from now until January 20 to allow for seasonal celebrations.

Habash’s organization is helping to stem the tide of emigration by helping Palestinian Christian find jobs, assist them in renovating their homes and providing educational scholarships. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where the Christian population has shrunk to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995, the foundation is working with the local telecommunications company, Paltel, to build a call center that would employ 100 people.

Asked about the impact of growing Islamic piety on the Christian exodus, Habash said it is a factor in the Gaza Strip where the Islamist group Hamas is in power, but not a serious one in the West Bank where the pro-Western Fatah party rules.

“An advantage for (Palestinian) Christians is that they are raised in an Islamic society,” he said. “They share the same values, culture and heritage. There is much understanding between Muslims and Christians.”

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