On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population

Bethlehem, West Bank—At the Church of the Nativity, triumphal banners with biblical stories hang in Manger Square, where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass this weekend.

But the festive mood belies an uncomfortable reality for Christians: Their numbers are dwindling here, as they are across the Middle East.

(See our carousel on the issues to watch for on the visit of Pope Francis to the Middle East).

The vast majority in Bethlehem 50 years ago, Christians now make up 15% of the town, about enough to fill Manger Square.

The pope arrives in the region on Saturday for a three-day tour, meant to commemorate a visit 50 years ago with the Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of many of the region's Orthodox Christians.

This will be the second tour for the Argentine pontiff.

He has traveled only to Brazil, where he was greeted in 2013 as a kind of native son by the world's largest Catholic country.

The Middle East, where his flock has been devastated, presents a stark contrast.

When the pope arrives on Saturday in Jordan, he will say Mass in a stadium among Christians who fled from war and sectarian strife in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

On Sunday, he visits Bethlehem in the West Bank. Tensions between the Palestinian territory and Israel and a stagnant economy have caused a slow bleed of Palestinian Christians, who have emigrated to other countries over decades.

The pope goes Monday to Jerusalem, where Christian sites were hit by anti-Arab vandalism ahead of his arrival.

A century ago, Christians accounted for 10% of the Middle East population, according to the Pew Research Center. Today they are 5%.

Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000

Pope Francis will find a Middle East where "moderation and stability that existed for Christians for centuries is now gone," said Justus Weiner, a human-rights lawyer and scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank.

"People now look over their shoulder and see if their relatives have decamped, and that creates a panic," he said.

During his young papacy, Pope Francis has spoken out a number of times in defense of Christians in the region.

In December, he celebrated Mass with the head of Egypt's Coptic Christian church, which has come under attack since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

He called for the right of Christians to "live peacefully in the places where they were born."

The pope is expected to raise the plight of Christians in the region again during his trip. In an interview with Catholic News Service, the Patriarch Bartholomew, who Pope Francis will meet, said the pair will discuss the "diminishing Christian minorities in the Middle East."

The Vatican hasn't commented on the topics to be discussed during the pope's trip.

Here in Bethlehem, it hasn't been upheaval that reduced the Christian population, but decades of tension and economic decline as the community found itself caught between Palestinian nationalism and the Israeli state.

The town had long been the home to some the region's most prominent Palestinian Christian families, with 70% of the population belonging to a mix of Roman Catholic, Maronite, Syriac and Orthodox sects, local leaders say. By 1995, wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors had left the population well under a third, at 20,000.

A turning point for Christians came in 2002 during the second Palestinian uprising. In April that year, a group of armed Palestinians barricaded themselves in the Church of the Nativity. For 39 days, the Israeli military besieged the church as the militants dug in and the priests looked on helplessly.

Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan friar in Bethlehem, recounted the siege recently and described the flood of Christians who departed after the attack. Many were supported by well-heeled families in Catholic Latin America who had emigrated. The church constructed 73 houses by 2009 for Christians who lost homes because of the fighting, trying to offer an incentive for the community to stay. Many still left, he said.

Bethlehem's Christian mayor, Vera Baboun, said the biggest hardship facing her community today is creating jobs for those separated from nearby Jerusalem by the wall that now divides the West Bank and Israel. Many were employed in Christian tourism, which dropped after Israel constructed the barrier in the wake of the second Palestinian uprising.

"The movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem isn't just in the Bible. It's an economic relationship that has been severed," she said.

On Saturday in Jordan, the pontiff will hold an outdoor Mass for Christians, some of them among the than 17,000 Christians who have fled to Jordan from Syria, according to the Catholic Church.

A 49-year-old Christian refugee who gave only her first name Nazek recalled fleeing from a Damascus suburb to Jordan last February.

At one point in the fighting, neighbors discovered a car bomb in front of a nearby church. When her 19-year-old son was called to the army, she decided to escape with her other two children, aged 26 and 27.

She recalled seeing Pope John Paul II travel through Damascus in 2000, an event she described as uplifting. But she says much has changed for the worse since those times.

"I want to tell Pope Francis about our suffering," she said. "We need your help pope. We need security."

—Deborah Ball in Rome and Suha Ma'ayeh in Amman, Jordan contributed to this article.