Last week, when Israeli tanks ringed the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Christians around the world were suddenly prompted to ask: What is the role of Palestinian Christians in this conflict?

Palestinian Christians comprise less than 10% of the population of the Holy Land, down from 35% a decade ago. Many experts believe Palestinian Christians could largely disappear in the Holy Land within a generation. They are leaving because of war, job opportunities elsewhere, and the growing population of fundamentalist Muslims.

Christians in the Palestinian territory are in an odd position. Israelis hold them at arm's length because they're Palestinian. Yet Muslims don't embrace them fully because they're Christian.

Palestinian Christians themselves are ambivalent about both groups. Palestinian Muslims have alienated them by Islamicizing the territory, building mosques next to churches, breeding fundamentalist Islam, and generally ignoring the desires of Christians. At the same time, Palestinian Christians are enraged at the Israelis, particularly in the last week, for their treatment of Palestinian Muslims.

On Tuesday, Israeli tanks ringed the church built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, while troops manned surrounding lookouts. About 200 Palestinian fighters have taken over the church, along with around 30 Franciscan priests and a handful of civilians. Pope John Paul II has prayed for peace in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square and said how close he felt to the priests who are "living through difficult hours in the Church of the Nativity."

Over the years, groups such as the National Council of Churches of Christ have visited Christians in the Holy Land and expressed outrage at their plight. Last summer, 18 mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox church leaders sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to work harder for peace. They wrote: "We are extremely worried about our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters. Facing daily threats from violence and economic deprivation and lacking hope for peace and a viable Palestinian state, many feel the pressure to emigrate. The demise of the living Christian community from the birthplace of the Christian religion would certainly be an irreparable tragedy for the Middle East and the Christian community internationally." But at the time, few people were listening.

Watching it all unfold with growing dread are the Palestinian Christians themselves, including Imad Hanna, a Lutheran who lives in New Jersey. "It's terrible that we can't hold on to such a rich tradition, the tradition of Christianity in the Middle East and the Holy Land," says Hanna, who grew up in Ramallah and moved to the United States 13 years ago to attend college.

Hanna's mother, brother and sister-in-law, his two small nieces, his cousin and aunt all still live in the West Bank--and today, he is deeply worried for their safety.

"It's very sad to see Christians, especially those in Jerusalem, not able to reach the holy sites because of the harassment [by Israelis] that they get at the check points," he says. "A lot of parishioners who live outside the city are saying-I'm not going to church."

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem, where Hanna was baptized, has seen its membership drop more than 50% in the last decade, he says.

Hanna says Christian Palestinians have historically been better-off economically than Muslims--one explanation for the fact that Christians have not so far become suicide bombers.

As a youngster, Hanna says he wore a cross around his neck. When he was stopped by Israeli soldiers, he says, he was not harassed because he was a Christian. But at this point, he says, Christians and Muslims are unified in their rage at Israel.

Hanna is having a hard time squaring his Christian faith with world events.

"As Christians, we are always optimistic," he says. "There must be a purpose for what's going on. But it's very hard to accept. We don't hate the Jewish people-we just don't agree with what the Israeli government is doing."

This latest phase of the conflict could force Christian leaders to formulate a position about the ongoing war, in a way that delegations of visiting bishops never have before. It also seems suddenly clear that Christians must pay attention to this shrinking group of fellow believers. If they don't, Palestinian Christians will leave the Holy Land and take with them their living legacy. And they will leave behind precious traditions and sacred sites--which will never be the same without a local Christian community to tend them. Christians around the world look to their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land as a living link to Jesus and his followers. They are Christians who look like Jesus may have looked and who walk the same paths he walked.

More important, one of the most difficult tasks will be trying to keep Christians from splitting even further apart over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In general, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and liberal Protestants--despite the fact that they have close ties with Jews and Judaism--have been ambivalent in their support of Israel because of their ties to Palestinian Christians.

Conservative Protestant Christians, meanwhile, have been supportive of Israel--even though in the United States they have often been culturally at odds. (Witness the controversy over the tape of Billy Graham in the Nixon Oval Office last month.) Evangelical support for Israel springs from their political views. But perhaps more important, they support the Israelis because they believe Israel's existence is a necessary component in the unfolding of God's plan for the end-times and the Second Coming of Jesus.

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