JERUSALEM -- One solitary string of colored lights drapes the YMCA here, the only public sign of Christmas in the city that gave the world Christianity.
"Every year at Christmas Eve I cry," said Francis Karam, 58, an Arab Christian born in Jerusalem. "I remember days gone by, the way it used to be. We used to celebrate Christmas with 50 or 60 people in the house. Now, there are four or five."
The Holy Land is emptying of Christians. The birthplace of the world's religion with the most adherents, part of the first Christian empire, the goal of columns of knights who marched from Europe during two centuries of Crusades, now has but a small and dwindling minority of resident Christians.
The Vatican will establish diplomatic ties with Israel on Thursday, paving the way for a historic visit by Pope John Paul II. He will worship at the shrines visited by more than 1 million pilgrims each year.
But when the tourists leave, the churches will echo vacantly, the shrines will gather dust, the priests and nuns will pray among themselves until the next batch of foreign visitors arrives.
"We don't want the Christian sites to end up to be museums, just sites for pilgrim tourists," said Aida Haddad, a Lutheran librarian who has watched her fellow Christians leave Jerusalem.
"You don't want dead stones. You want living stones filled up with Christians from the country."
The drain is most dramatic from the Holy Land, now modern Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But it is part of a emigration of Christians from all of the Middle East. They are leaving because of political repression, economic hardships and the pressures from Jews and Muslims.
Their departure is both a religious and political blow. Ever since contact was made at the point of a Crusader's sword, Christians have had ties to the West. They have served as a political and cultural counter to Islam, a fast-growing force often stridently antagonistic to the West.
"When the Christian community is gone, you will get a strictly 100 percent Muslim society. They will have a different perspective, a different attitude, a kind of 'us against them' mentality," warned Kenneth E. Bailey, a religious historian based in Cyprus.
'No future here'
Nael Raja Qahhaz shrugs at these sweeping implications. All he wants is a good job. The 26-year-old Christian house painter waits in a line at the U.S. Consulate -- just up the road from where Jesus is said to have been crucified -- to get a visa to leave.
"There is no future here," he said. Work is sporadic. Even the best-paying jobs, in Jewish settlements, pay $28 a day. An Arab employer offers half that -- "not enough to get a house. Not enough to get married. Hardly enough for cigarettes."
Does he feel any pull, as a Christian, to stay in the Holy Land? No, Mr. Qahhaz says. "All of the Christians are leaving. Why should they ask me to stay?"
They are following a well-worn path from the Old Country to the New: to South America, to the United States, to Canada, to Australia. In Israel and the West Bank, there are fewer than 170,000 Christians among 7 million Jews and Muslims.
In Bethlehem, where Jesus is said to have been born, a centuries-old Christian majority has shriveled to a minority of 35 percent.
In Jerusalem's Old City, services are sparsely attended. "When I go to church, there are seven or eight people there. It used to be full," said Terese Rumy, 68, who regularly attends Sunday Orthodox services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected.
Elias Shomali, a banker in Baltimore, left his home in the outskirts of Bethlehem in 1969 at the age of 26.
Typically, the reasons for emigrating are to pursue higher education and a career in banking.
Lack of jobs
"For me, as a banker, the question was, to go back and do what? We [Palestinians] do not have any banks. The lack of job opportunities in addition to the hard political and social climate," made it difficult to remain, he said.
Mr. Shomali said that with the recent moves toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the incentive to return might be greater. But his four children were born and raised in Baltimore and are unlikely to resettle in the land of their ancestors.
"If peace prevails in the Middle East, I probably would go back," he said. "I don't know if my children would. They have their own friends here."
There are no reliable numbers for the Christian exodus from the Middle East.
Even among Palestinians, Christians are reluctant to announce their intention to leave, for fear of alienating Muslims. "The Muslims say we are afraid, and we don't fight Israel like they do," said Besma Tannous, a young mother of four and a Greek Orthodox Palestinian. "Many are afraid for our children," she acknowledged.
"We send them to the States, and later on we follow them."
The Christian population of the Middle East is estimated at between 6 million and 9 million, roughly 5 percent to 7 percent of the population.
"The problem is serious, dramatic," said the Rev. Rafiq Khoury, an official of the Latin Patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pressures on Christians throughout the Middle East have grown:
* The Copts of Egypt, by far the largest group of Christians in the Middle East, are under attack by Muslim radicals. Dozens have been killed in two years in bloody ambushes.
* In Iraq and Syria, dictatorships protect Christians. But the repressive governments make life harsh for all and may target Christians for eventual reprisals by the growing Muslim majority.
* In Lebanon, Christians have lost power in the last Arab country they ruled in the Middle East.
* In Israel and the occupied territories, Arab Christians have been crowded out by a growing Jewish state, economic hardship and a repressive military rule.
Many in the West see Christianity as a Western religion. To Westerners, an Arab is a Muslim. But Christianity moved from East to West.
Christians were once a majority here, part of the first Christian empire in the fourth century. Roman Emperor Constantine adopted the religion, and the reign of Christianity lasted until the desert followers of Mohammed swept in from Arabia in 633.
"There is an assumption that with the Arab invasion, Christianity disappeared. It isn't true," said the Rev. Jerome Murphy O'Connor, a scholar at the French Dominican School of Bible and Archaeological Studies in Jerusalem. "There was a very concerted effort to live with Islam."
For centuries, Christians of the West seemed to consider Jerusalem a storybook place, not a living city. Now, given the relative ease of travel, pilgrims flock here: More foreign Christians visit Jerusalem than foreign Jews or Muslims, but they rarely interact with the native Christian community.
"We were here for centuries. We kept the holy places. We went though a lot of suffering so that pilgrims can come here," said Salim Munayer, dean of the Bethlehem Bible College. "But when Western Christians come, they don't know we exist."
In Israel, there are about 120,000 Christian Arabs. In the West Bank and Gaza, there are about 50,000, about 3 percent of the population.
Christian Arabs inside Israel have citizenship, but suffer economic and social discrimination. Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have lived with the additional burden of Israel's strict military rule, and its accompanying curfews, harassment, midnight house searches, land confiscation and unpredictable violence.
Twenty-six years of occupation have squeezed much of the life out of the Palestinian economy. Although Palestinians are among the most educated of any Arabs, college graduates who return home may end up driving taxis or hauling stones at Jewish construction sites.
Tension with Muslims
Surveys of both Israeli Arab and Palestinian Christians consistently show the chance to get a good job is the chief motivation for emigrating. Privately, many admit they also want to escape the tension between Christians and Muslims. The conservative Islamic dress and social codes are at odds with the dress and customs of many Christians.
"When Muslim [men] see me in a dress or bluejeans, they call me a whore," said Tauleen Ozghoul, a 19-year-old Christian.
"The Muslims hate us," said Ms. Karam. "It's not that we believe in Mary or Joseph or Jesus. It's the way we look, the way we dress, our education, our schools."
There is discord even within the churches. Palestinians say the Western churches -- especially Christian fundamentalists in the United States -- have been overridingly supportive of Israel and unwilling to join the fight for political or human rights.
Palestinian parishioners of the Greek Orthodox church, the largest denomination, have long complained that Greek-born church officials betrayed them by transferring large tracts of church property to Israelis.
"The Patriarch is serving the aspirations of the Israeli government and the [Jewish] settlers . . . against Christians in Jerusalem," said Ramallah pharmacist Marwin Toubassi, one of the leaders of a laymen's challenge to the Greek hierarchy.
Among the first emigrants from Palestine were souvenir salesmen who discovered a lucrative market in the New World for olive-wood carvings and mother-of-pearl artifacts from the Holy Land.
Western missionaries set up schools that taught English and French, and gave Christians contacts abroad. The early emigrants spread family connections to many parts of the world, connections that now beckon to family left behind.
"Every young man here thinks of emigration," sighed the Rev. Boutros Suliman, priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Taibe, where Jesus is said to have fled to escape the anger of Jews who heard he raised Lazarus from the dead. "It's our biggest problem. They have no jobs. They cannot marry. They have land outside the village, but they cannot get permission from the Israeli military to build a house."
Christians typically are better prepared to emigrate. City dwellers, they are less tied to land than Muslims. They usually are well-educated. Proportionately, twice as many Palestinian Christians as Muslims have finished high school, and three times as many have advanced academic degrees.
Often, their flights were forced and unexpected. In the 1948 war, 50,000 Christians left the land that became Israel, one-third of the Christian community in Palestine. Wars in 1956 and 1967 added to the exodus. At each turn of history, Palestinians who left were barred from returning; first by Britain, then by Jordan, then Israel.
According to Bernard Sabella, a researcher at Bethlehem University, Christians have left the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 at nearly twice the rate of Muslims, losing nearly 35 percent of their remaining number.
Stemming the tide
Some churches are trying to stop the flow. In a modern building on the outskirts of Jerusalem, 42 families live in apartments -- each with a cross over the door -- financed by the Franciscans.
Many Palestinians believe that the Catholic Church has asked Western embassies to reject immigration visas, to keep Christians here. Father Khoury of the Latin Patriarchate denies that. But he said the church openly preaches against emigration.
"We say to people, you should remain in your country. Your presence is here and your witness is here," he said.
"We tell them: You are important to your country."