The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs has been a source of deep concern to the small Holy Land Christian population.
Off the record, many Christians living in the West Bank complain that they are being persecuted by Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which has sought, through pro-Muslim policies, to appease fundamentalist opposition to the P.A.'s attempts to reach a peace agreement with Israel. Things are not necessarily any easier in Israel, however.
When a group of militant Muslims occupied the square adjacent to Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation and demanded that a mosque be established on the site, the Christian community was forced to look on, almost helplessly as the squatters proceeded to get their wish.
"Our problem is we feel that we are caught between Jews and Muslims, added Nasser Odeh, a 64-year-old Christian living in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. "We feel that we don't enjoy all our rights here in Jerusalem as Christian Arabs. This is the way it goes when you are a minority."
But with the Pope's visit around the corner, Palestinian Christians are hopeful that their fortunes will take a turn for the better. And these hopes do not rest solely on the soothing effects of John Paul's message of universal peace, tolerance and brotherhood. Like almost everything in the Middle East, the expected benefits the pontiff will bring are political in origin.
To Palestinian leaders locked in a fierce diplomatic struggle with their Israeli counterparts, the Vatican, which has expressed sympathy in the past to Palestinian statehood demands, is seen as a potentially important ally. Although the pope will spend most of his time in the region in Israel, touring Jerusalem and the Galilee, Palestinians see his one-day visit to Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem as the key moment of his visit.
Thanks, in part, to an agreement signed recently between the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the pope can be confident that he will receive a hero's welcome in Bethlehem, unlike French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, whose motorcade was pelted with stones during a recent visit to the West Bank town of Bir Zeit.
"The agreement constitutes a historic turning point in the benefit of peace...and as a guarantor of Palestinian national rights,'' Arafat said in a statement released following the agreement. "(It) rejects all Israeli attempts to annex and Judaize Jerusalem.''
Strongly criticized by Israel, the pact addresses the status of churches and the freedom of worship in the Palestinian territories. The preamble declared that an "equitable solution" for Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, was "fundamental for a just and lasting peace." It also called for international safeguards of freedom of religion.
Wadi Abu Nassar, an assistant to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, said that the agreement has "institutionalized the relationship between the Catholic Church and the PLO." He added that the Catholic Church does not recognize the sovereignty of Israel over East Jerusalem. "Now, there is an official channel between the PLO and the Catholic Church," he said.
As a further expression of the pope's solidarity with the Palestinian people, his visit to Bethlehem is set to include a tour of the nearby Dhaisheh refugee camp, home to some 20,000 Palestinians living in squalid conditions. The Palestinians hope this visit will bring worldwide attention to the plight of the refugees, whose future is one of the issues yet to be resolved by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.
To ensure the Vatican's continued sympathies, Arafat knows that he must work to address the concerns of the Christians under his rule. Arafat, whose wife Suha is Christian, meets regularly with church leaders from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And he is the principal guest of honor at midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem each Christmas.
But the chairman of the Palestinian Authority must be careful not to be seen to alienate Muslim religious leaders, such as Sheikh Mohhamed Jamal, the hardline deputy mufti of Jerusalem.
Jamal broke ranks with the Palestinian Authority's official line by launching a scathing attack on the pope: "What message does this pope carry? None. Where was he when the children of Iraq were dying because of the embargo? Why didn't we hear his voice when Israel killed and imprisoned thousands of Palestinians?"
Despite the interest of the Vatican and the predominantly Christian countries of the Western world in the peace process and developments in the Holy Land, the local Christian community is politically very weak. Cities such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, once overwhelmingly Christian, now boast Muslim majorities.
In Jerusalem, the Christian population numbers around 7,000, down from 28,000 in 1967 and 45,000 in 1947. The number of Christians of all denominations living today in Israel (including East Jerusalem), the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is in the neighborhood of 150,000.
The Christian population of the Holy Land has fallen rapidly as a result of the emigration of the younger generation who feel persecuted by both Jews and Muslims. In the Bethlehem region, the Christian population has fallen from an estimated 120,000 in 1967 to 50,000 today.
"In a few years' time, Christian pilgrims coming to the Holy land will have to bring their own priest because there won't be any left," says Dr. Samir Qumsiyeh, a physician from Bethlehem.
In the eyes of many Palestinians, the pressures that drove so many Christians abroad can be directly traced to the Israeli-Arab conflict, a position that often serves as a politicaly convenient way to side step the reality of growing Christian-Muslim tensions.
The Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riyah Abu Assal--ignoring the Crusades--stated emphatically that prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, "The entire history of Palestine never witnessed any religious conflict between Christians and Muslims."
In her book, "This Side of Peace," former Palestinian chief negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian, asserted that while growing up she felt no difference between Palestinian Christians and Muslims. "We did not know who was what, and it was not an issue."
It remains to be seen whether or not the pope's visit, or even the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will revive the spirit of tolerance that Palestinians insist once existed between the region's Christians and Muslims. For the time being, however, Christians in the Holy Land must do their best to come to terms with the fact that they are not in charge.
Farid Zuabi, a member of the Muslim Trust in Nazareth, summed up the situation, in defending the controversial campaign to build a mosque directly in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, the traditional site where Mary received word that she bore the Christ child in her womb.
"I see no reason why the Muslims, who make up a majority in Nazareth, should not be allowed to build their own mosque on this land," he said. And then he added, in the spirit of consolation, "We want to invite the holy pope to lay the cornerstone for the new mosque."