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Pope To Visit A Land Of Disappearing Christians

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, May 22 (Reuters) - 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 Syriaor 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 theWest 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.

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