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If you believe in Christmas, Bethlehem may be no place for you.

The Little Town, since antiquity an emotional world capital of Christianity, is steadily becoming a town without Christians. A city that was 80 percent Christian in 1948, is now 85 percent Muslim.

Until recently, this was the West Bank city that belonged to the world. Now it belongs to Hamas.

That thought must trouble Hamas even as it does Christians, who are finding it harder and harder to hold on to their presence in the literal birthplace of Christianity.

As the Hamas-led Palestinian government seeks to persuade the Christian West to lift embargoes on aid, the last thing that Hamas needs is the appearance of slighting Bethlehem, and, for that matter, Christmas.

So it was, that this month, Hamas earmarked $50,000 from its depleted coffers to spruce up Bethlehem for the holiday.

"We don't fund any Islamic celebrations, but we want to fund this Christian festival, which is a special part of Bethlehem," said Acting PA Finance Minister Samir Abu Eisha. "As a Palestinian government, we hope our Christian brothers have a happy celebration. They are an integral part of Palestinian society."

Integral may not be the word most Christians would choose. The tide of Islamization has had telling effects on Bethelehem..

There are external signs, like the words "Islamic Jihad" sprayed in graffiti under the steeple of the city's Christmas Lutheran Church.

There are internal signs, like the reluctance of residents and officials to openly express trepidations over the Christian character of the city, and the influence that an avowedly Islamic government could have over daily life.

There are quantitative signs. Anxieties over Islamization have now added a strong new incentive to the exodus of local Christians, a process already spurred by Israel's military occupation, settlement policies and the separation fence, as well as the violence and upheaval of the intifada, and ever-beckoning opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere.

And there are global signs that could give any Christian Palestinian a sense of marginality, such as a Hamas declaration that every inch of Holy Land soil is Islamic land.

In a speech during his visit to Iran at the weekend, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared in the name of the Hamas-led Palestinian government that "we are the trustful protectors of the Islamic land of Palestine."

On Sunday, Haniyeh, holding talks with Iranian Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei, derided past attempts to make a distinction between the Palestine problem and Islam. Haniyeh stressed that the Palestinian cause is "Islamic" and that Palestine is an Islamic territory.

"Therefore, no individual and government in Palestine has the right to overlook even the slightest portion of its soil," he added.

It was only a decade ago that Yasser Arafat effectively made Bethlehem Christians into the very symbol of Palestine, by choosing the city's Church of the Nativity to declare that Jesus was a Palestinian. "This is the birthplace of our Lord the Messiah, the Palestinian," he stressed.

In a Holy Land where history and analogy are often inseparable, the casting of Arafat's Nativity play was clear. Not only was Jesus a Palestinian, the Palestinians as a people were Jesus.

They personified Jesus as long-suffering and pure of intention, a refugee, persecuted and oppressed with unspeakable cruelty and state-of-the-art weaponry by an occupying invader who had defiled the Holy Land with heathen, foreign beliefs.

In the Nativity pageant of Jesus as Palestinian, IDF paratroopers portrayed the Roman Legion, Israel's government took the part of expansionist, heartless Imperial Rome, and hardline settlers and rightists played the Jews who refused to recognize the godliness of Jesus' message.

In those days, it was much easier to accept that Christian Palestinians were seen by Muslims are brothers and sisters in common cause. Arafat, after all, had married into a prominent Christian family. The sense was fostered, also, by declarations of Arafat's Fatah, then in power, which formally foresaw a secular Palestinian state, multi-religious in character.

Moreover, when Arafat spoke publicly of going to Jerusalem and flying the Palestinian flag, he often stated that he would fly it "from the churches and from the mosques," placing the churches first.

But that was then.

A sea change came during the Al Aqsa uprising - pointedly named for a mosque - coupled with a rising tide of Islamization the world over. For Bethlehem, all bets were suddenly off. Young Fatah gunmen took on the religious fundamentalism and the maximalist ideology of their Hamas and Islamic Jihad compatriots.

Ibrahim Shomali, a Christian restaurant owner in Bethlehem, told a reporter earlier this year that he was selling what he could before he leaves with his wife this month for Flint, Michigan.

"We Christians now feel like we are on the cross," he said.

If the Palestinian national movement has gone Islamic, so has the narrative. The admired figure of the refugee Jesus has been replaced by barbs slung at Crusaders and the Pope.

Certainly, for the Christians of Bethlehem, the Nativity is changing, perhaps forever. The Star has dimmed, the Wise Men are nowhere in sight, and the sense is growing that there may soon be no room at the inn.

It's Christmas 2006. Christianity's place in Palestine is now as tenuous as it was in antiquity.

It's Christmas 2006. Is Jesus still a Palestinian?

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