In the land where Jesus was born, there is little room for his believers. Palestinian Christians are being squeezed out of the Holy Land by a loss of jobs and travel restrictions.
Among them is George Ghanem, who can trace his family's faith to the time of Christ. His ancestors were among the first to follow Jesus 2,000 years ago, he said.
Ghanem, who is studying for a doctorate in family counseling at George Washington University, spoke at First United Methodist Church in Hollidaysburg last weekend where he expressed concern for the plight of the Palestinians and to make known their desire for peace.
"We are against suicide bombers," he said. "We care for each other. We want to live peacefully."
Ghanem grew up in Beit Sahour, which means "the House of the Nightwatch." It is near Bethlehem and the Shepherds' Field, where it is believed that the angel announced Christ's birth to the shepherds.
He said the area's population was once about 85 percent Christian, and it was about 30 percent Christian during the last century, but has dwindled to 1.7 percent. In the past few years, he has lost three neighbors who have moved to Sweden, Jordan and Texas.
Ghanem said conflicts between Jews and Arabs in the 1990s and the at the beginning of the 21st century discouraged tourism, a major source of income for Palestinians who sell souvenirs, make crafts, operate tour buses or work in hotels or restaurants.
The construction of the West Bank barrier that began in 2001 also contributed to Christians leaving their homeland, he said.
The wall was erected to protect Israelis from suicide bombers. Ghanem said it, too, discourages tourism and travel to Jerusalem and communities in the West Bank.
The Rev. Dennis Derr, pastor of First United Methodist Church, has travel to Israel 11 times in the past 19 years and said he has seen portable checkpoints become more permanent barriers and public services cut to certain areas.
"It doesn't bode well for people who live there," he said.
Ghanem said in the past, 2 million to 3 million people would visit Bethlehem a year and now about 4,000 to 5,000 make the trip annually.
He said required permits to enter Jerusalem and checkpoints hinder employment.
Workers who once traveled freely between Beit Sahour and Jerusalem now must obtain a daily permit and often stand in line for eight or nine hours. Many arrive at the checkpoint at 3 a.m. to get to work in Jerusalem by 9 a.m.
They pay about $25 for a daily permit from an income of about $500 a month, he said. Ghanem, who formerly worked in Jerusalem, said he was a denied a permit and was told "you're dangerous."
"Every Palestinian is a threat, unless you can prove the opposite," he said.
Because of the need for a permit, Ghanem said it is easier to travel to America than to go to Jerusalem. But Palestinians still allow about three days to get to the airport in Jordan because delays at checkpoints could cause them to miss their flights.
According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation's website, Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, and maintains military control of them through checkpoints and soldiers. Before Israel became a nation in 1948, Palestine was one country, Ghanem said.
He said Palestinians gave up 60 percent of their land for the Jewish state and compared it to someone knocking on your door and saying he was going to live in 60 percent of your home.
He said land belonging to Palestinians can be confiscated today by the Israeli military for security purposes, noting that West Bank barrier was built on Palestinian land.
He said land owned by Christians was confiscated in 2000.
Ghanem was critical of Christian Zionism, a belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with biblical prophecy and a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ. Ghanem said people in the movement believe the Palestinians should leave and allow the Israelis to occupy the land to fulfill biblical prophecy.
"They are trying to rush the end of the world," he said. "It's God's decision, not their decision."
Derr said there is no biblical base for the belief.
He said Scripture says to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and people should also pray for the peace of Israel.
"It is the birthplace of the Prince of Peace for the world," he said.
Ghanem said he and his wife and children are excited about returning to their homeland after he gets his degree.
In Beit Sahour, he has friendships with Muslims and Jews and has opened his home to them.
The Palestinians want peace with their Israeli neighbors, he said.
"Ninety percent of the Palestinians want to live in peace. I beg everybody to help make this happen."