12/07/2004, 00.00
PALESTINE
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Palestinian Christians fear their country might become an Islamic state

Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – In Bethlehem, people are getting ready for Christmas with a little bit more hope than years past, expecting pilgrims to come in greater numbers. Yet Palestinian Christians are also "afraid that Palestine might become an Islamic state", this according to the nuns of Bethlehem's Baby Caritas Hospital, the town's paediatric hospital, who spoke to AsiaNews.

The nuns—who have been operating in Christ's birthplace for 30 years—said that "Palestinian Christians have no illusions as to the new political situation. They fear instead that they will be let down once again".

"Those who can, emigrate as quickly as possible. If they regret their move, they realise that going back has become impossible. Christians fear they are becoming a shrinking minority, overwhelmed by Muslims who are having more children".

The nuns denounce "Islamic extremism which has spread here in recent times, especially in the villages of the Judean desert. This makes life for Christians very difficult".

Recently, Muslim staff members at the Christian hospital (founded by a Swiss Catholic priest) wrote a letter to the Board of Directors asking that female Muslim nurses wear a veil at work. "It is a request they make from time to time, but the hospital refuses not only for reasons of hygiene but also to preserve its Christian character," the nuns say.

These days there are some signs of hope in the territories though. At the check-point that leads to Israel, more permits have been released for those seeking work in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.

Bethlehem's Catholic community is getting ready for Christmas, especially for the novena that starts on December 15. There will be mass at 4:30 pm in the Basilica of the Nativity and a priest will express some reflections. Traditionally, Catholics participate in great numbers at this activity and in last few years the church has always been full.

Pilgrims are also expected to come in greater numbers this year, especially after the Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministers signed a deal guaranteeing greater security in the Holy Places. Religious tourism has traditionally been the backbone of the local economy.

The nuns of Bethlehem stress that "this year pilgrims are back, above all from Italy. We have had at least a hundred groups, many led by their bishops, who in coming are encouraging others to visit the Holy Land". (LF)

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