Beir Zeit, West Bank--As dazzling as it is to pray in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the place is a shrine more than it is a working Christian church, in the sense of having a regular congregation.

Part of that is because of the dying out of Christianity in the Holy Land.

In 1922, 51 percent of the population of Jerusalem was Christians. Today, Christians number less than 2 percent. When Israel was founded in 1948, 18 percent of its people were Christians. Now it's 2 percent, and dwindling fast.

A big reason for this is emigration: if you are a Christian, you will almost certainly be a Palestinian Arab. Aside from being a tiny minority in a sea of fervent Muslim Arabs, until recently at least you lived under Israeli occupation in the West Bank (some still do). Life was hard, economically and otherwise, so if you had the option of emigration, you were hard pressed not to exercise it. And so many Christians have left for good.

Late Sunday morning, I traveled to Bir Zeit in the West Bank to worship with Father Emil Salayta and his parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.

I was scared to travel there, quite frankly. The Jewish cab driver I initally hailed told me he was afraid he'd get a rock through his window if he drove me through Palestinian territories. He stopped an Arab taxi driver and passed me off.

Though these people had no idea who I was or that I was coming, they welcomed me at the church with open arms. It took one lively Mass, and conversation over honeyed cakes with cardamom-spiced java at coffee hour to begin breaking down stereotypes and prejudices I hadn't realized were so strong.

I wish I could have stayed longer, but Salayta, as it turned out, was my only ride back to Jerusalem, and he had to leave.

"The churches you have visited in Jerusalem are beautiful, but they are dead stones," he told me on the drive back. "We are the living stones of the Holy Land. But if things don't change soon, all that will be left here will be these churches that are really just museums of Christianity."

Salayta talked about how hard it had been for West Bank Palestinians to survive economically under occupation, and the miserably poor towns we passed through underscored his words. He said the Israelis made it impossible for his people to live with dignity and hope for the future.

We drove by an Israeli army checkpoint, where soldiers had young Palestinian men standing outside their cars presenting their papers.

"The soldiers could keep them there for hours, and then they could take them to a military court without a lawyer, and throw them in prison," the priest said. "This is our daily bread."

Salayta does what he can to stem the tide of emigration. He just oversaw the construction of housing for 48 young Christian couples in Bir Zeit, paid for by the Spanish government and Christian charities. But the figures remain grim: there are three times as many Christian natives of Bir Zeit living in the United States alone than there are in Bir Zeit.

This got to me. I have always been absolutely convinced of Israel's right to exist, and still am. I'd always considered the Palestinians to be nothing more than vile, Jew-hating Islamic terrorists. Until this past Sunday, I never gave serious consideration to the suffering of the Palestinian people, both Muslim and Christian.

But don't I have a religious obligation to stand up for justice for them too? I pray for the safety of Israel and the Jewish people all the time. Must supporting Israel mean I have to harden my heart to the Palestinians?

I did think so. No, that's not really true. The truth is, I never thought about it at all, having grown up with the PLO massacre of the Israeli athletes at Munich as one of my earliest TV memories. The visit to Bir Zeit revealed to me that my prayers for peace in the Middle East had really been prayers that the Palestinians would get over their problem, and cast out the hatred and rage from their hearts.

My prayers still will have that component, and I would be less than fully truthful if I didn't disclose that I heard some anti-Semitic commentary from one parishioner at Bir Zeit. I reminded him that the church says that kind of thing is a sin; he responded with a furious litany of the awful things done to him and his neighbors by Israeli Jews.

It's going to take a long time, and probably a miracle, for peace to come, if it comes at all. So I will also pray, for once, that the Israelis will begin to treat the Palestinians fairly, and that both sides can forgive each other, and live in peace and justice.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vastly more complicated than I had considered before going to Bir Zeit. Now I know better. My conscience was convicted by what I heard and saw on the West Bank.

On Tuesday, I went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and stood among the throng of black-hatted Hasidim praying before Judaism's most holy site. I bowed my head, leaned forward and rested my right hand on the remains of the Second Temple. I thanked God for gathering the Chosen People into Israel--really, I did; sometimes I pray with a sense of middlebrow melodrama straight out of James Michener--and asked him to preserve them here in safety.

But I prayed for the Palestinians too.

Somehow, having my heart touched by the sufferings of the "living stones" moved me to deeper conversion more than the awe I had experienced the night before in laying my hand on the rock of Calvary. Surprised? Oh, you bet. But isn't this how it's supposed to work?

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