|In this photo taken Sunday, May 18, 2014, the entrance of an abandoned house that belongs to a Palestinian Christian emigre family, one of a half dozen abandoned homes that were saved and purchased by local Christians through the mediating efforts led by Father Ibrahim Shomali, the parish priest of Beit Jala, in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. Pope Francis will be arriving this weekend to the land where Christianity was born, and where Christians are disappearing. The Christian community in the Holy Land is one of the oldest in the world. But it has dwindled to around 2 percent of the population today, as economic hardship, violence and the bitter realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent them searching for better opportunities overseas. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)|
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By DANIEL ESTRIN
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pope Francis will arrive this weekend in the land where Christianity was born — and where Christians are disappearing.
This ancient community has dwindled to around 2 percent of the region's population as economic hardship, violence and the bitter realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.
The Christian exodus, underway for decades, has reached critical levels in recent years. Emigration is a central concern to local Vatican officials, who are trying to stave off the flight with offers of jobs, housing and scholarships.
"I am sad to think that maybe the time will come in which Christianity will disappear from this land," said the Rev. Juan Solana, a Vatican envoy who oversees the Notre Dame center, a Jerusalem hotel for pilgrims that employs 150 locals, mostly Christians.
Solana said he employs Christians to encourage them "to stay here, to love this land, to be aware of their particular vocation to be the witnesses of Christianity in this land."
The Christian exodus is taking place across the Middle East. Jordan, where Pope Francis will begin his three-day trip Saturday, has thousands of Christian refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq.
For the Church, the phenomenon is particularly heartbreaking in the cradle of Christianity. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.
The pope said in a November speech that "we will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians," lamenting that they "suffer particularly from the consequences of the tensions and conflicts underway" across the region.