(CBS News) The exodus from the Holy Land of Palestinian Christians could eventually leave holy cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem without a local Christian population, Bob Simon reports. Why are they leaving? For some, life in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become too difficult.
The following script is from "Christians of the Holy Land" which aired on April 22, 2012. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Harry Radliffe, producer.
Christianity may have been born in the Middle East, but Arab Christians have never had it easy there, especially not today. In Iraq and Egypt, scores of churches have been attacked, hundreds murdered. In Syria, revolution seriously threatens Christian communities. The one place where Christians are not suffering from violence is the Holy Land: but Palestinian Christians have been leaving in large numbers for years. So many, the Christian population there is down to less than two percent, and the prospect of holy sites, like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, without local Christians is looming as a real possibility.
This is what the Holy Land looks like today. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Nazareth, where he grew up. Jerusalem, where he died and where Christians believe he was resurrected. Nazareth is inside the state of Israel. Bethlehem is on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Christian section of Jerusalem is also under Israeli control.
We know the area well -- know that it is arguably the most fought over piece of real estate in the world, sacred to half of humanity. Still, when we decided to do the story last year, we did not realize our story would become so controversial.
Our story begins in Bethlehem, where it all began. We went to Saint Catherine's in the Church of the Nativity.
For local Catholics, this is their parish church. The day we went, a confirmation was underway. Father Marwan Dides, a Franciscan, led one child after another up to the altar, watched by proud parents. The church was so crowded it was difficult to believe that Christians now makeup only 18 percent of what was for centuries an overwhelmingly Christian town.
Father Dides: We are the living stones of the Holy Land. From here, it all started. And it had to continue. It's a must. It must continue. If there is no people, no Christians here, it will never continue.
Here in Jerusalem, the numbers are even bleaker than in Bethlehem.
Theophilos the third, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox, has lived through the decline. His church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is the most sacred site in Christendom. He took us up to the roof. You've got to know a patriarch to get here.
Theophilos: Come in. You are inside the Holy Sepulcher. Just inside here is the tomb.
That is the tomb which covers the site of the resurrection.
Bob Simon: When you first came here in 1964, what was the percentage of Christians in the old city?
Theophilos: There were around 30,000 of-- Christians living in the Old City.
Bob Simon: And now how many are there?
Theophilos: Very few.
So few, some 11,000 Christians out of a population of almost 800,000 -- just one and a half percent.
Religious leaders are afraid Jerusalem could become a museum, a spiritual theme park, a great place for tourists and pilgrims, but not for the Arab Christians whose roots date back to the church's very beginnings.
Mitri Raheb: Christianity started here. The only thing that Palestine was able to export so successfully was Christianity.
Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian, a Christian and a Lutheran minister from Bethlehem. He runs schools, cultural centers and health clinics.
Mitri Raheb: Christianity has actually on the back a stamp saying, "Made in Palestine."
Palestinian Christians, once a powerful minority, are becoming the invisible people, squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and burgeoning Israeli settlements. Israel has occupied the West Bank for 45 years.
Mitri Raheb: If you see what's happening in the West Bank, you will find that the West Bank is becoming more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese where Israel gets the cheese that is the land, the water resources, the archaeological sites. And the Palestinian are pushed in the holes behind the walls.
Israel built the wall over the last 10 years, which completely separates Israel from the occupied West Bank. The wall was built to stop Palestinian terrorists from getting into Israel. And it's worked. Terrorism has gone down 90 percent.
At the same time, the wall completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the "little town" where Christ was born into what its residents call "an open air prison."
Bob Simon: Do you remember the day they put up the wall?
Christie Anastas: Yeah. Actually, it was in 2003 and I was about 14 years old. I went to school one day and came back and found the wall surrounding the house.
Christie Anastas lives with her mother Claire, her father, brother and sister, in this house which is surrounded on three sides by the wall.
Bob Simon: How do you live with this?
Christie Anastas: Well, it's not easy, actually, but you get used to it. Because you have to.
The Anastas family lives on the third floor. This is the view from the kitchen, from the master bedroom and bathroom. The children's room has a good view of this Israeli guard tower.