Christian emigration from the Holy Land is not a new story. From the late 19th century, Christian families seeking greater economic opportunity, freedom of social and religious expression and political stability have left the region to establish themselves in the West. In recent decades – particularly in the 1990s – the number of Christian emigrants from the West Bank and Gaza have increased considerably.

This steady stream of Palestinian Christian emigrants has raised fears that, in the future, the Christian presence in the Holy Land will be reduced to caretakers of empty churches, museums and institutions.

Emigration is not caused by one single factor, but by many factors, most of which are experienced by the broader Palestinian population. These include economic hardship, housing, political uncertainty, threats to personal security, education and challenges to religious identity.

Although statistics are limited, community leaders have verified the increase of Palestinian Christian emigration, especially in those areas of Christian concentration – Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. And, to a large extent, Christian emigrants outnumber Muslim emigrants.

This report explores the current concerns of the Holy Land's Christians and summarizes the causes of this exodus.


I. Brief history of Christian emigration from the region, beginning in the late 19th century to present.

A.     Syria-Lebanon

B.     Palestine – two major flows from the central region

        1. Christians of Ramallah to North America

        2. Christians of Bethlehem area to South America – Chile, Argentina, etc.

C.     Explanations for early immigration:

        1. Contacts with early pilgrims and missionary schools

        2. Freedom from Ottoman rule

        3. Economic incentives – education, employment shift from agriculture to service and private sector employments, rural to urban orientation, etc.

D.     Socioeconomic outcomes contributing to present immigration trends:

        1. Family in the West – greater networks and family links overseas for Christians. An estimated 90 percent of Palestine's Christians have relatives in the United States, Europe or Australia.

        2. More opportunities elsewhere for Palestinian Christians due to higher levels of education, work and travel experience – a heightened Western orientation.

        3. Christians leave to establish themselves permanently elsewhere, while Muslims leave to generate quick income and then return.

        4. Since 1948, some 230,000 Arab Christians have left the region (Dr. Bernard Sabella, Bethlehem University), including refugees from 1947 and 1967; moreover, some 35% of the total Palestinian Christian population has emigrated since the Six Day War, June 1967.

II. Collapse of the peace process: from post-Oslo optimism to today's dismal reality.


Palestinian Christians belong to 15 churches and are concentrated in urban centers: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Ramallah. Presently, most reside in the West Bank and in Israel proper, with very few in Gaza. In spite of several areas of concentrated settlement, their numbers are exceptionally low with respect to their Muslim and Jewish neighbors.

At the time of the most recent demographic survey of the West Bank and Gaza

[1], Muslims comprised more than 97 percent of the population, while Christians made up just 2.3 percent. The average household size for the West Bank and Gaza as a whole was seven.

Within Israel, the non-Arab Christian population has grown considerably in recent years. Unprecedented numbers of legal and illegal non-Jewish residents and immigrants now live in Israel. A large share of this group are Christians, a condition that is causing great worry for the religious Jewish community who say these Christians pose a threat to the Jewish identity of Israel. According to Shlomo Ben Ezri of the Shas political party, 50 percent of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews. This percentage formerly hovered around 30 percent, but recent surveys have verified its increase to 41 percent.[2] Ethiopian immigrants also make up a sizeable share of the new Christian population, according to Gadi Golan, head of the Department of Religious Communities in Israel. The interior office in the Galilee reported that 60 percent of 400 residency applications recently submitted were from non-Jews. Despite increasing numbers of non-Jewish immigrants in recent times, the number of immigrants on the whole has dropped sharply due to the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. Only 42,000 people immigrated to Israel in 2001, compared to 105,000 in the year 2000.[3]

According to recent figures published by Israel.s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population, Muslim and Christian, living in Israel represents roughly one million persons – 19.6 percent of Israel's total population are Christian; 14.5 percent are Muslim. On the whole, Israel's Arab population is a young one: 40.8 percent are below the age of 15. Thirty percent of Israel.s Arab Christians and 42.5 percent of Israeli Muslims are below the age of 15.

According to population projections and given the higher fertility rate among Muslims,[4] it is estimated that by 2020, the Arab Christian population will shrink from 1.8 to 1.6 percent of the total population of Israel, while the Muslim population will grow from 14.5 to 19.34 percent.

Added to these dismal demographic projections for the Holy Land's Arab Christians is their ever-increasing tendency to choose emigration given the present difficulties in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The principal reason for the dramatic rise in Christian emigration has been the continuing Israeli military occupation and the denial of the sovereignty of a Palestinian state wherein Christian Arabs could feel at home economically, politically, culturally and spiritually.

Generally speaking, the trouble of estimating the most recent emigration trends is one of limited statistics, especially with regard to the West Bank's Christian community. Christian leaders hesitate to release information for fear of inciting panic within the already struggling Christian community. Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, finds that there are also national interests at stake.

"The emigration phenomenon is a well-kept secret. No Palestinian journalist has written about the wave of emigration, which is still increasing. The thinking is that from a national point of view, the story shouldn't be given publicity. There are journalists who think that the emigration story could be detrimental to the national interest, to the ethos of the coming victory. The problem is, that because no one is writing about the phenomenon, no one really knows what the situation is."[5]

What has been verified is that the emigration phenomenon is felt most strongly in the Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah areas, where there are many Palestinian families who were relatively prosperous until the current intifada and where the Christian concentration has traditionally existed. According to the Custody of the Holy Land, an order of Franciscans responsible for the Latin holy places in Israel and Palestine, more than 450 families have emigrated from the Bethlehem area since last year.[6] In Beit Sahour, one of the few towns in the Holy Land remaining primarily Christian, a recent survey found that 51.2 percent of respondents are considering emigration due to the difficult political conditions.[7] During a December 2001 summit convoked by Pope John Paul II, the Holy See's Secretary of State, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, said that only 117,000 Catholics are left in Israel and the Palestinian Territories out of a total population of 6.1 million.

Given the sparse data available, reports by foreign embassies in Israel can also be useful in estimating the recent rise in emigration. The impression gleaned in embassies and in immigration offices is that a visa to a Western country is the most prized commodity in the Palestinian Territories. Australia, the United States, Canada and Great Britain have all had major increases in visa requests in the past year. In Australia alone, according to government reports, applications for visas from Palestinians increased 1,440 percent between July 2000 and July 2001 alone. In this same period, the number of Palestinians applying for an entry visa to the United States increased 60 percent.

It is important to preface this outline of Christian concerns by stating that each of the following is enduring difficulties that have sadly contributed to the Christian community's hardship in the Holy Land for decades, but now are greatly magnified in the current situation:


Lack of secure, decent, affordable housing, especially affecting young people wishing to marry and start families.

A.           For example, in Jerusalem's Old City:

1.Average housing unit is 50 square meters

2.Average household size is 4.68 persons

3.80% of housing units have only one or two bedrooms

4.20% were found unfit for habitation and 55% are situated in an unhygienic environment

5.61% of Old City Christians live in church-owned buildings.

B.     High rent:

1.Two salaries are needed to afford an apartment

2.Many young people are postponing marriage because they cannot afford to move from their parents' homes.

3.People who cannot afford Jerusalem rents are forced to live elsewhere and thus risk losing their Jerusalem identity cards.

C.     Loans are very difficult to acquire, especially now.

While Israeli occupation restrictions have played some part in the current situation of housing congestion, poverty due to the Israeli closure policy has also caused people to delay or interrupt housing renovation and repair. Israeli closures have had a widespread impact on the Palestinian macro- and microeconomy. At the microlevel, individual households are struggling to meet their most basic needs. Given the sustained severity of unemployment and the collapse of key sectors, notably tourism and construction, households have been forced to spend their savings and abandon investments. There is a high incidence of debt due to large amounts of extended credit from the era of post-Oslo optimism. Mortgage and car payments are financially strangling as local lending institutions refuse to issue additional credit.

According to the Palestinian Monetary Authority, the value of outstanding bank loans grew more than 34 percent between December 1999 and December 2000, reaching US $1.3 billion, up from a 21 percent increase from 1998 to 1999. Deteriorating economic conditions have led to a substantial increase in bounced checks. For example, in October 2000, bounced checks totaled US $10 million, up 51 percent over the previous year.[8]

At the present time, many lending institutions in Jerusalem have frozen their credit programs. An unofficial source from the Cairo-Amman Bank in Jerusalem maintains that only 20 percent of borrowers are finding the means to pay. The same bank recently had to foreclose on the mortgages on 4,000 taxis and 240 tourist buses.


Since the beginning of Israeli occupation in 1967, expansion and development of Palestinian land holdings and housing has been severely constrained. The Israeli Civil Administration (the military administration governing the West Bank) has repeatedly denied provision of building permits to Palestinians. Approximately 60 percent of the West Bank – not including Jerusalem – has been confiscated by the Israeli government since 1967 to construct 194 Jewish settlement communities housing approximately 25,000 residents. In addition to the ever-increasing settlement construction, the period since 1967 has seen a dramatic rise in the number of 'protective' Israeli military installations throughout the West Bank.

Systematic and strategic placement of Israeli settlements since the beginning of the Peace Process in 1993 has resulted in a patchwork of land confiscations, buildings and road construction in the West Bank and Gaza. Each settlement has a military presence and military checkpoints to ensure the security of those Israelis occupying the Palestinian territories. At the same time each settlement disrupts the life and commerce of Palestinians. For instance, Beit Sahour is divided into two sections by surrounding settlements. In Beit Jala, Israeli settlements occupy a large portion of the area's prized archeological sites. In addition, Israeli settlements have depleted a large share of the water out of the West Bank aquifer for their unrestricted use and have seized many tourist sites.

The Jewish settlement community in the Palestinian territories continues to grow. Although growth is currently at a slower pace than at the height of settlement building in the late 1970s, the overall settlement population increased by some 5,000 people in the last year. In fact, a recent Peace Now survey finds that a total of 25 new settlement sites have been established in the West Bank since the prime ministerial elections in February 2001.[9]


The depth and severity of the current economic crisis is unprecedented, with daily overall economic losses estimated at $11 million. Persistent, high unemployment – currently estimated at 57 percent of the usual West Bank/Gaza workforce[10] – combined with decreasing participation in the labor force and increasing dependency rates, have affected a sharp decline in living standards for the Palestinian population, trends that will likely worsen by the end of this year.

Preliminary results of the most recent UNSCO field survey indicate that an increasing number of Palestinians have lost their principal source of income and are failing to meet basic needs. Included among the unemployed are more than 120,000 Palestinians who previously worked in Israel or in Israeli-controlled industrial zones. UNSCO finds that median household income has decreased by 48 percent since September 2000, from a nominal value of NIS 2,300 to NIS 1,200.[11] Consequently, an estimated 65 percent of the total West Bank/Gaza population now lives below the poverty line of $2.1 per day (79.9 percent of Gaza households and 56.6 percent of West Bank households). [12]

The economic volatility resulting from closures and political uncertainty has stymied growth and perpetuated poverty. Israel has taken deliberate measures to suffocate the Palestinian economy, including roadblocks, road destruction, military checkpoints and deep trenches dug around entire cities and towns.

A.           Movement restrictions and border closures (both internal and external) – an apartheid structure imposed on 40 percent of the West Bank and 70 percent of the Gaza Strip

        1. Effects of external closure between the Occupied Territories and Israel

                §   Restricting imports and exports

                §   Inhibiting workers from reaching their places of employment (more than 120,000 Palestinians who previously worked in Israel or in Israeli controlled industrial zones)

        2. Effects of internal closure between West Bank towns and villages and between the West Bank and Gaza:

                §   Decreasing income to farmers, workers and merchants who are unable to obtain input and/or sell goods to the local market

                §   Waning demand for local goods and services from the domestic economy

B.           Labor Market Trends

        1. Labor force participation rate has decreased by 39.2 percent – rising number of "discouraged workers"

        2. Increasing informalization of domestic economy – unpaid family labor and self-employment

        3. Shift in sectoral distribution: Construction, manufacturing and tourism have dropped while individuals move into agricultural and public sector employments.

Since they are predominantly urban dwellers, the majority of Christians have traditionally been employed in the tourist sector, a sector that has entirely collapsed since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. According to "Ha-aretz," some 80 percent of Arabs employed in the tourism industry are Christian. Unemployment in this sector is rampant. For example, the closure of the Jericho Casino in December of 2000 left approximately 1,200 Christians from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas without work. Moreover, of the Palestinian-run hotels in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Nazareth, more than half of the workers have lost their jobs.

C.           Poverty

        1. The number of people living below the poverty line has risen to 65%

        2. High incidence of debt – mortgages and car payments – are now financially strangling

        3. Only the wealthiest Christians can afford to wait out the situation. Who will support the needy when seemingly everyone within the Christian community faces acutely damaging economic struggle?

        4. 32% of the Palestinian population (more than 1 million people) receive assistance.

On the whole, economic recovery will take decades and will require substantial resources and sustained policy attention from all future stakeholders.


For nearly 15 months since the uprising began, there has been no measurable progress towards peace, only further escalation of political threats and military conflict.

A.     Failures by the Palestinian Authority to create a viable state:

        1. Absence of a legal system and a constitution

        2. Advancing a society based on personalities and corruption

        3. No healthy pluralistic democracy or civil society; the Christian voice is often ignored in the face of an overwhelming Muslim majority

B.     Israeli control – arbitrary closures, curfews, checkpoints, military occupation and administration of Christian areas in the West Bank, particularly in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Christian villages west of Ramallah.

C.     Social anxiety for Israeli Arabs, fear of Jewish neighbors. The terror faced by both Israelis and Palestinians has contributed to increasing tensions and a polarization of society, especially between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. In an October survey by the University of Haifa, more than two-thirds of Jewish respondents said they do not want Arabs to live in their neighborhoods. A similar percentage of Arab respondents feel the same way about Jewish residents.


A.     Shelling and Military Bombardment. Israeli military continues to employ tanks, helicopters and snipers. Rather than crush a handful of Palestinian militants as intended, these inflammatory acts punish an entire group. In recent weeks, the situation has reached its most dismal point. Daily attacks on Palestinian targets often harm innocent bystanders. It appears that the Israeli government is pursuing a policy of gradual reoccupation of the Palestinian territories.

In the past months, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Ramallah have been subject to Israeli bombardments, tank fire and rockets. Most Christians have stayed out of the direct fighting; however, Muslim rioters and Tanzim (Palestinian paramilitary extremists) often shoot from the rooftops of Christian houses to the nearby Gilo settlement, thus bringing Israeli military retaliation upon Christian civilians and their homes.

Numerous Christian homes have been damaged (366) or destroyed (12) by indiscriminate rocket fire in Beit Sahour alone. More than 95 houses in Beit Jala have been hit by gunfire, as the small Christian village is steadily becoming the "front line" with Israel. Other Christian homes in these areas were occupied by soldiers, who confined residents at gunpoint, destroyed personal property and used the homes as strategic outposts, often for snipers. Even though the soldiers have now departed, victims of these incursions suffer from constant fear, especially the youth.

B.     Settler mob violence and harassment. Certain fanatic members or groups within the settlement communities also pose a potential security threat to their Palestinian neighbors. In the past year, settlers have rampaged through Arab areas, vandalized buildings, torched cars, beaten, shot and in at least a dozen cases killed Palestinians. They have harassed olive pickers, stoned vehicles, set fields on fire and fired on farm workers. Israeli settlers are rarely called to account for their actions or subjected to punishment since law enforcement agencies most often either turn a blind eye or treat them with leniency.


A.     Brain Drain. Education often works as an accelerator for emigration, pulling Christians to countries with more specialized job opportunities in advanced fields. Available work is most often limited to the lower-skill, labor-intensive sectors, such as construction and agriculture. When they were able to reach their workplaces, the 122,000 workers employed in Israel were largely restricted to blue-collar occupations.

"The people who are leaving are generally those with an education, people who know the West, who have a culture of human rights," says Bassem Eid. "Because they are leaving, I am beginning to doubt that we will have a Palestinian civil society. These are the people our society needs most of all."

The "brain drain" of educated young people is especially strong in these times due to the unpromising political and economic future in Palestine. Officials of the Canadian embassy have received a flood of visa applications from West Bank Palestinians in recent months. They say that about 90 percent of those seeking immigration hold advanced degrees, including a large number of engineers and pharmacists.

B.     Christian Schools in Palestine. There are some 108 educational institutions administered by the church in the Holy Land. These schools have experienced terrific hardship in the past year. Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza has forced many schools to close their doors temporarily. In general during this past academic year, 167 schools were forced to close down anywhere from three days to 20 days due to Israeli aggression. During the last year, 225 schools underwent a direct missile hit. According to reports by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, about 50,000 students could not get to school in October 2001. At least three schools were occupied by Israeli soldiers and turned into military camps. Over two thousand students have been injured on their way to or from school, and 137 have been killed trying to make it to school.

Students in the Latin Patriarchate.s schools have lived under terrible circumstances since September 2000. Along with thousands of Palestinian children, they have been suffering immense psychological tension as a result of Israeli brutality and the deaths of Palestinian people. Many are unable to function normally in the classroom. In October 2000 and again in October 2001, teachers in the Beit Jala Latin Patriarchate School reported that children continue to suffer from nightmares, fear, depression and lack of focus and concentration during daily lessons. Students lack interest in academic work because their future is so bleak. Moreover, in this worsening cycle of violence, students are being exposed to values that are either contrary to their nature or premature for their stage of development. The psychological impact on children is also evidenced by repeated absences from school. Their individual identities are being consumed in a massive culture of patrimony and self-defense.

Many of the children.s conversations during lessons reflect the state of fear they are experiencing as a result of continuous air raids in their neighborhoods. Children are alarmed and shaken by any loud noise. During the many nights of gun battles and bombings, the students have developed persistent fear and worry about their life. In October 2000, hundreds of families in the Beit Sahour area had to flee their homes to escape the shower of bullets and the missiles that dropped in their neighborhoods. A year later, most of these families cannot return to their homes because they live in dangerous neighborhoods where shooting can break out at any moment.

Other difficulties experienced by Christian schools include the following:

        1. Debates over updating curriculum, particularly growing influence of militant Islam

        2. Lack of funding, children from poorer Christian families are overlooked. Parents who previously sent their children can no longer afford school fees and tuition.

C.     Discrimination against Arab students within Israel. A recent study conducted by Human Rights Watch found a huge discrepancy between the quality of education for Jews and Arabs in Israel.13 The report says that discrimination against Arab education is systematic, and has serious ramifications for the chances of Israel.s Arab citizens – some 19 percent of the population – to reach higher education and become integrated into the civic fabric of Israel as equal partners. Arab children drop out of school at a rate three times higher than Jewish children and are less likely to pass the national matriculation exams required for a high school diploma. Only 5.7 percent of Israeli Arabs earn a Bachelor.s degree.

Examples of discrimination in Arab classrooms include overcrowding, understaffed and poorly trained teachers, chronic budget deficits for pre-kindergarten compulsory nurseries and a lack of proper accommodation for Arab students needing special education. According to data from Israel's Ministry of Education, the numbers of Arab pupils who need special education far outnumber those who receive those services. Only 18 percent of the pupils in special education classes are Arab, even though 30 percent of the pupils in the country who need such services are Arabs. There are 45 special education kindergartens in the Arab sector compared to 585 Jewish kindergartens and 44 special education schools in the Arab sector compared to 222 Jewish schools.


This includes water, electricity, sanitation, roads, infrastructure and a lack of recreational outlets.

According to a report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of Israel's most serious areas of discrimination is toward the state.s Arab citizens. For example, only 10 percent of the funds budgeted for helping youth in distress is earmarked for Arab youths, although they constitute about 22 percent of this population. The report also finds that residents of East Jerusalem are systematically denied building permits; homes built without permits are destroyed.

In addition to discrimination against its own Arab citizens, the state of Israel controls the supplies of water and electricity allotted to the West Bank and Gaza. Although the Palestinian Authority is responsible for direct management, Israeli authorities have the ability to constrain or divert supplies at any time. The water and sanitation situation in the West Bank has worsened considerably in the past year.

According to Oxfam GB.s Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program, the Bethlehem area has been the most affected of all areas occupied by the Israeli Defense Force in terms of sanitation and water. The city relies on supplies originating in Israel. As a result, roughly 90 percent of the Bethlehem population has had its water supply cut for temporary periods. Household reservoirs have been damaged by stray gunfire and Israeli bulldozers have broken water pipes in many locations throughout the Bethlehem area. It is estimated that more than 50,000 people have been negatively affected.

In the West Bank there is also a severe lack of opportunity for recreational and community activities, a condition which contributes, in part, to emigration decisions. To date, very few public facilities or organized community activities exist. For example, public parks, sporting opportunities and cultural gatherings are extremely rare. The need for these extracurricular activities for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza and particularly for youth cannot be underestimated. Such opportunities would provide a crucial outlet for recreation, creative expression and development in a society where such opportunities are rare and where political conflict threatens psychological health. Boredom and frustration, too, are a result of confined lives – these factors also contribute to higher emigration among the Christian community and the Palestinian population as a whole.


A.     Denial of access to Jerusalem and its holy places – including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane, the Garden Tomb, etc. – to Palestinian Christians from the West Bank produces an entire generation of Palestinians who have no familiarity with the Holy City.

B.     Difficulties for clergy; in particular, the frequent disruption of travel between West Bank towns and villages: