WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (RNS)--The stories of Middle East unrest and Palestinian-Israeli conflict sometimes seem synonymous with Jewish and Muslim tensions. Often forgotten in the equation are the Palestinian Christians, a historically significant group whose numbers have dwindled in the past half-century.

Of the 4 million Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, fewer than 200,000 are Christians. But those who remain are committed to both their faith and their land and have made a significant impact on the situation by fostering ties to Western churches.

"Many American church groups that go on a `Holy Land' tour start out very pro-Israel," said Don Kruse, former U.S. consul in Jerusalem, who has led many tours to the region since his retirement. "Once they see the conditions of the Palestinians and come in contact with Palestinian church leaders, they often become much more sympathetic to the Palestinian position."

Kruse was one of the individuals honored last weekend at a national conference held in Washington and sponsored by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a group dedicated to supporting Christians in the Holy Land. The conference brought together Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Melkites and other denominations to hear speakers and mobilize support.

Some speakers warned of possible extinction: In 1948 the Christian population of the Holy Land was 18 percent, while today it is less than 2 percent. The majority of the Arab population of Jerusalem was Christian in 1922. Today it has dwindled to a small minority.

Without an active, ongoing Christian population, the organization predicts many of the holy sites will become "museums" instead of active places of worship.

The situation has changed radically from the third century when Constantine promoted Christianity in the region and Palestine was one of the most Christianized parts of the world. Many of the significant sites of Jesus' birth, ministry and death were located and memorialized at that time, and Christianity flourished until Muslim dominance occurred three centuries later.

Recalling both the history and the current plight, voices at the conference ranged from Donald Wagner, director of evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, to Drew Christiansen, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Whatever theological differences might divide the groups at other times, they were unified in their concern about the current situation.

Most were critical of the Israelis.

Said Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Global South at American University and former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations, "Being victims of one holocaust does not justify the perpetration of another."

Concern was also voiced about the perceived biased voice of the U.S. media and what was called more than once the "Zionist tendencies of the American church."

Cited were such statements as one Franklin Graham made to the Associated Press in which he was quoted as saying: "The Arabs will not be happy until every Jew is dead. They hate the state of Israel. They all hate the Jews. God gave that land to the Jews. The Arabs will never accept that. Why can't they live in peace?"

For the most part, though, the conference called for positive support of Palestinian Christians and a return to "values that bind Jew, Christian and Muslim together," according to Dr. Robert Younes, chair of the conference.

Craig Barnes, senior pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, put it this way: "If we do not share in the efforts to stem the tide of emigration, soon there will be only two or three gathered in Jesus' name in Jerusalem."

Noting the church in the West has always been passionate about the Holy Land, he said: "It was never just a tourist site we were trying to hold on to...If we turn from the historical presence of God in Jerusalem, we turn from the spiritual presence with us as well...Everything we hold dear about Christianity is on the line."

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