Thursday, 21 December 2006

Christians see little future in little town of Bethlehem

Jennifer Satara sits in front of housing built by the Catholic Church, where she lives with her family. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Thursday, December 21, 2006
Page A - 13

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Bethlehem -- Bethlehem native Bashir Satara dreamed of living in the United States.

For three years he worked at a string of casual jobs from New York City to the Bay Area, but he could not get a green card, and finally had to go back. So he did the next best thing -- he tried to create a little of the Bay Area in the West Bank.

Inspired by one of the eateries where he had worked in Martinez, he opened the first fast-food joint in Bethlehem, which he called First Subway Express. Now it's the only place in town open after midnight and is successfully supporting three families.

But his story is atypical.

Thousands of Christians like Satara have left Bethlehem in the past six years, but few return. Cash-strapped residents, struggling to survive in a town where the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and Israeli security measures have reduced tourism to a trickle, have been quitting Bethlehem in droves.

"Why do people leave? Because they need housing, education, they need money," said Father Shawki Baterian, general administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Victor Batarseh, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, said last week that unemployment in the town has risen to 60 percent and urged people to visit over Christmas to help the economy.

Satara entered the United States in the summer of 2000 on a tourist visa and stayed on as an illegal resident. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was stopped by police who discovered he had no valid visa. He was questioned by the FBI and immigration officials, but was allowed to walk away after he requested political asylum.

He traveled to Martinez to join his parents, Maurice and Mary Satara, who had arrived a few days before Sept. 11 and managed to stay another two years. Mary Satara had two sisters living in Sacramento, and the elder Sataras became legally registered residents of California.

In May 2003, Bashir Satara was in an automobile accident. The car he was driving was impounded and he was fined $70 for not having a license. He decided it was time to leave.

He and his parents returned to the family's ancient stone house in the twisting alleys of Bethlehem's old marketplace, but all of them wondered whether their decision wasn't a terrible mistake.

Bashir Satara, a 23-year-old Palestinian Christian, found it almost impossible to make a living.

"Everything was closed," he said. "Everything inside the house was wrecked. It had been broken into by the Israeli army and by the Palestinian militants. Most people I knew had left, and all my friends were thinking of leaving because they had no work."

Then he had his brainstorm. He opened the first fast-food joint in Bethlehem, First Subway Express, with a loan from a sympathetic Christian businessman.

A generation ago, Christians comprised 80 percent of the population of Bethlehem, but today they are just 15 percent. Since the beginning of the intifada -- which broke out less than three months before the much-advertised Christmas 2000 celebration -- nearly 10 percent of the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have emigrated, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In response to this drain, Christian institutions are trying to keep their community from disappearing altogether from the place Jesus was born. One way is to give them a roof over their heads.

Bashir's brother Carlos Satara, 32, is among dozens of Christian families living in modern subsidized housing built by the Catholic Church. He now lives with his wife and two small children in the Child Jesus, an apartment complex built by the Custos of the Holy Land and the Franciscan Fathers, in order to provide Christian families with affordable housing.

"Before I took this home, I was thinking of leaving Palestine. I even got a visa for Canada. Now it's still difficult, but it's better than before," Carlos Satara said.

The Custos -- the head of the Franciscan Order, directly appointed by the pope -- has built several similar complexes in Bethlehem since the intifada began.

"The problem of houses for the Christians of the Holy Land is very serious," said the Custos, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in an interview posted on his Web site. "Emigration is a truly dramatic problem. ... You must remember that the poor never leave, they will always remain with us since they do not have the money necessary to emigrate."

Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Catholic bishop of the Holy Land, Jordan and Cyprus, has also sponsored a series of housing projects in Bethlehem and other Christian areas with a total value of $10 million, providing accommodation for more than 200 families.

"We are living in a situation of struggle, occupation and chaos," said Father Baterian. "We have no proper government. Sometimes the church takes the role of the government itself.

"Our main aim is to give Christians a chance to stay in the Holy Land. ... We try as a church to provide all the basic things so the people can choose. We tell them: You have a mission to stay here, but sometimes they cannot bear it, so they choose to leave."

Baterian said the Patriarchate projects were generally built on church-owned land, then offered for sale or rent at subsidized rates. He said the Nativity housing project in Bethlehem, with 52 units, provided work for 600 people while it was being built.

The Patriarchate has just finished construction at the Annunciation, an apartment block in Beit Jala, the town neighboring Bethlehem, where Issa Fawadleh, 43, his wife Elise and three teenage daughters, were preparing to spend their first Christmas in their new home.

"We were all living in one room in a tiny house in the old city, so we couldn't wait to move into this apartment with three bedrooms and a large living room," said Fawadleh. "The church helped us by spreading the payments over a long period. If not for the Patriarchate, we would have had to stay in our old home until we die."

Fawadleh has a job at the local sock factory. He said the lack of work in the West Bank means that many people would be unable to find decent housing without such projects, but he had never thought of leaving.

"Many people from here have left the country because they weren't able to study, find jobs or get married," he said.

"They had to leave. It wasn't their fault. If they had all those things, they would have been able to stay," Fawadleh said.

Hanna Siniora, a prominent Palestinian Christian from East Jerusalem and co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the church had finally done what was necessary to help the dwindling Christian community.

"I hope it's not too late," said Siniora. "It's very much needed. It will help Palestinian Christians to stay in the Holy Land. We don't want to see our churches end as museums."

But Father Baterian said that housing wasn't the only condition for keeping Christians in Bethlehem.

"Most of all they need stability. You can provide people with everything, but if they don't have peace they will leave," he said.

Bashir Satara sits in the First Subway Sandwich shop, which he opened after his return from the U.S. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

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