BETHLEHEM, West Bank - When Pope Francis visits the birthplace of Jesus next week, he will address a dwindling population of faithful whose exodus from the Holy Land could turn the shrines of Christendom into museum pieces.
While ever growing numbers of Christian tourists pour into Bethlehem and the adjacent Jerusalem to visit the plethora of sites associated with Jesus, many Palestinian Christians hope to join a legion of relatives who have already moved out.
Christian communities have been in relative decline across the Middle East for generations, with the recent Arab revolts and the rise of radical Islam only accelerating the process.
The cradle of Christianity has not suffered the bloody mayhem seen in nearby Syria or Iraq, but still the Christians look to leave, blaming the Israeli occupation for withering their economic prospects and hobbling their freedom of movement.
Local worshippers hope Pope Francis will use his fleeting trip to Israel and the West Bank on May 25-26 to recognise their plight, but doubt that he can do much to help just weeks after the collapse of the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We cannot expect much from the Pope ... but we need a message of justice, of peace, of encouragement, of hope for the future," said Father Jamal Khader, a spokesman for the visit.
The statistics are stark.
In the last year of British rule over the region in 1947, some 85 per cent of Bethlehem's population was Christian, while in Jerusalem, the figure was around 19 per cent. Today, those numbers are put at some 20 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively.
Just 10 minutes apart by car, the two iconic cities are now divided by a hulking concrete wall which Israel erected a decade ago during a Palestinian uprising. The violence has subsided but the barrier remains, an enduring symbol of separation.