For the first time in years, the number of Christians returning to Palestine has exceeded the number of those leaving. Prime Minister Dr Salam Fayyad revealed this today in an address to the bishops of the Holy Land Co-ordination currently visiting the region.
At the meeting in Ramallah, Prime Minister Fayyad thanked the bishops for their work in promoting a just peace for all. He said that a vibrant Christian presence was vital for the future of a Palestinian state and announced that the most recent data showed for the first time a net immigration of Palestinians, including many Christians, after years of a decline in their presence.
The rate of emigration was previously 4.3%, but Prime Minister Fayyad said the recently collated data from 2009 showed more Palestinians returning than leaving. "The trend is positive for the first time," he said.
"We are doing as much as we can to encourage people to stay and for those who have left to return. We have made considerable improvements to civic society, governance and infra-structure. If you get living conditions right then people will stay and we need a vibrant Christian presence in Palestine. Otherwise what is the Holy Land without Christians? How can we have Bethlehem without Christians? It would not be Bethlehem but something else and this is a high priority. The problems for the Church are the same problems for the Palestinian Authority and this comes down to the occupation."
The news comes after the highest number of pilgrims went to Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations since 2000. Up to 500 Christians from Gaza were also able to come to Bethlehem which was a considerable improvement of previous years, although Prime Minister Fayyad warned that any restriction was unacceptable.
"We have to continue to look at ways of encouraging people to stay, from house building to general improvements in civic society, from health to education. We have put 2,000 infra-structure projects in place and by making institutions more equitable, getting rid of corruption little by little we are maturing to look like a state. We must make the state a fact and when the bottom up and top down improvements converge then we will have a state."
The Palestinian Authority was very keen to work collaboratively in education where the Church is very active in schools across Palestine, he said, educating both Christians and Muslims. This was a shared agenda and helped to ensure that Palestine remained free of the discrimination that had disfigured some other parts of the Middle East.
"I read the Pope's message and I share his concern about intolerance in the Middle East. We are very disturbed at the recent terrorism against Christians in both Iraq and Egypt and we must speak out on this issue. Not all countries of the Middle East are the same and we have a long tradition of co-existence in this land. Freedom of religion is essential and that requires tolerance and respect.
"It is our duty to end the occupation. It is oppressive to Palestinians but also corrosive to Israelis. But while we seek to end the occupation we must find ways of improving livelihoods. The situation remains difficult, but the most important thing we can do is to keep a spirit of hope."
Prime Minister Fayyad ended the meeting with a plea to the bishops and all the Catholics they represent in Europe and North America to keep Palestinians in their prayers and thoughts to see justice prevail.