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Pilgrims flock to ancient Holy Land church as Palestinian congregation shrinks

by Reuters Journalist

One of the world's oldest churches, built on top of a cave in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and festooned with golden icons, attracts thousands of Christian pilgrims every year. 

But the Church of the Ten Lepers' own congregation of Palestinian Christians grows ever smaller.

The first church on the site, in the northern West Bank town of Burqin, was built more than 1,600 years ago to commemorate a miracle.

Christians believe the cave, which used to serve as a Roman cistern, is where Jesus healed 10 lepers, who were isolating there to prevent the disease from spreading, as he passed by en route to Jerusalem from Nazareth.

Early Christians faced persecution and the first prayers at the site were in secret. But in the fourth century, Saint Helena, the mother of the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, visited and decided to build a church there, said Father Spiridon Shukha.

The Greek Orthodox priest led a recent Friday service at the church before about a dozen worshippers, a congregation dwarfed by the number of visitors to the church, who Burqin's mayor said in 2019 totalled between 200 and 300 per month.

While holiday services are held on Sundays, throughout most of the year the dwindling local community gathers for prayer on Fridays, when they are off work, said Father Shukha.

Today, only about 70 Palestinian Christians remain in the town of 8,500 people, said Moeen Jabbour, its administrative manager.

"In Palestine, we face several difficulties, including (Israeli) occupation and the economic situation... There are no jobs, so (our youth)... move elsewhere," he said. "This is why Christian presence is shrinking in this town."

Burqin is not alone, and there are concerns within the Church that some Christian holy sites in Jesus' birthplace could become mere historical monuments.

According to Protecting Holy Land Christians, a campaign organised by the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, the Christian proportion of the population across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has dropped to 2% from 11% about a century ago.

The campaign says Christians are also being driven out by rising acts of violence and vandalism targeting them.

Father Shukha admitted there were challenges, but has faith in his parish's continued survival as part of the local fabric.

"We are the children of this land. This is where Jesus lived, not Europe or the United States," he said. "It is true there are few of us here, but we call ourselves the salt of the earth because even a pinch of salt can add a lot of flavour to this town."

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