(Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s five-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this week is partly intended to offer support to the Christian minority in the region.
Below are facts about Christians in the Holy Land:
* Israel says it has 154,000 Christian citizens, making up 2.1 percent of the Jewish state’s population of 7.4 million. An estimated 50,000 Christians live among 3.9 million Muslims in the Palestinian territories, most in the West Bank, notably in Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem. Some 3,000 are in the Gaza Strip.
* About 80 percent of Christians living in Israel are Arabs. Some 44,000 of those are Roman Catholic while the others belong to the Greek Orthodox or other churches.
* The remainder of Israel’s Christians are mostly migrants from former Soviet states who came with Jewish spouses and other family members during a wave of immigration in the 1990s.
* Some 17,000 Palestinian Catholics live in the West Bank. Most of the West Bank’s remaining 33,000 Christians follow the Greek Orthodox church and other eastern denominations.
* The Palestinian Authority says the Christian population in the West Bank has shrunk over the last three decades due to emigration, many to Australia, Canada and the United States, but lacks accurate figures. The rise of Islam is cited by some among reasons for disquiet. But few Christians give that as a reason for emigration. Most say they leave for better living standards. Christians, by tending to be better educated and wealthier than the Palestinian average, have more opportunities to emigrate.
* A 2004 United Nations report estimated some 2,000 Christians emigrated from Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, during the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and two years later prompted an Israeli military offensive in the West Bank, including a siege of Bethlehem’s Nativity Church.
* Gaza’s Christian population has stayed constant but recent attacks against schools and other sites by fringe militant groups claiming links to al Qaeda has raised concerns. The ruling Hamas Islamists say they are protecting Christians, who like other Gazans are hemmed in by an Israeli-led blockade.
Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Sophie Hares