On the eve of Pope Benedict 16's upcoming visit to Israel, an Israeli research group says that the number of Christians living in Jerusalem has shrunk to 14,000, down from 31,000 at the end of the British Mandate – only 2 percent of the city's population, and far fewer than the 20 percent it constituted in 1946. As such, Jerusalem is following a pattern which has been taking place in other cities as well: once-large Christian communities see their numbers dwindle, as Christian Arabs emigrate or move and are replaced by Muslims.
The report, prepared by Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, says that most of the younger generation of Christians who were born in Jerusalem have left the city – many emigrating abroad, to the United States, Canada, and South America. "Actually, the vast majority of the non-Arab Christian population has already left the city," Dr. Ramon said, adding that many members of the Arab Christian communities have left as well, with many moving to Jordan. Out of the 14,000 Christians living in the city today, 2,600 are nuns, monks, and clergy studying in the city.
In addition to low numbers, the Christian communities in Jerusalem are divided into several groups, each operating for their own interests, often against each other. The Catholic community in the city is the largest among Christians, with 4,500 members, followed by the Greek Orthodox community, with 3,500 members.
In 1946, there were 97,000 Jews, 31,000 Muslims, and 30,000 Christians in the city. The number of Christians in the city dropped drastically between 1948 and 1967, and has remained static ever since then. Meanwhile, the Muslim population grew exponentially during that time, and now constitutes about 230,000 people.
Pope wants to boost housing
Dr. Ramon said that the Pope's visit will, among other things, attempt to underscore the problems facing the Christian community, which many in the Church fear is in danger of disappearing altogether. "The Pope's visit is an attempt to give a shot in the arm to the Christian community, which is shrinking. The Pope will announce a number of steps to help the communities, including a housing program for young families, and revamping the educational system, which educated many Muslim students as well."
Many Christians have complained of being targeted by Muslims, whom they believe are trying to either drive them out of cities that have traditionally had large Christian populations, or to "persuade" them to convert. In 1999, for example, radical Muslims in Nazareth rioted as they attempted to wrest land from a major Christian shrine to build a mosque. Christians in Bethlehem, too, have complained of being persecuted by Muslims, and being encouraged to leave. In 1946, Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian and Nazareth 60 percent; those numbers are now 20 percent and 30 percent respectively, with the percentage of Christians in the city shrinking every year.
The situation in Hamas-controlled Gaza is especially bad for Christians, and has been described as a campaign of religious "cleansing."