WILLMAR -- Michael Zoughbi, a Palestinian, proudly traces his Christian heritage back 1,000 years. He was born and raised in Bethlehem but considers the Holy Land his home.
At one time, Christians accounted for more than 45 percent of the population there. Now, the percentage is about 1.7 percent. Zoughbi says Christians are leaving the area to escape bad economic conditions and travel restrictions brought on by decades of Israeli occupation.
Zoughbi and his wife, Carmen, are in Willmar this week for speaking engagements and will discuss Middle Eastern Christianity. In addition to speaking engagements, Zou-ghbi is coordinating the sale of olive wood carvings to help provide income to 46 Christian families in Bethlehem so that they can remain there.
Dr. Arland Jacobson of Moorhead, a retired Concordia College professor, is accompanying the Zoughbis.
The couple has first-hand experience with travel restrictions that arose as a result of their birth places. He was born and raised in Bethlehem and has been given a green ID card. His wife was born and raised in Jerusalem and was given a blue ID card. They've been married since 1983 and have six children and three grandchildren.
The couple has two homes, one in Jerusalem and one in Bethlehem. Jerusalem was part of the West Bank before 1967.
After 1967, the Israeli government included it as greater Jerusalem and they call it Israel, he said.
"For me it's very hard to be in Jerusalem without getting any permission. For those with green ID, we need permission (from the Israeli government) to be in Jerusalem,'' he said. "I am not allowed to be in Jerusalem or to be in my home in Jerusalem without having permission.''
He says those with blue ID can go anywhere they want.
"To us, they consider us the West Bank people. ... We are a different part of the Israeli state or the Palestinian state or the Holy Land area and we are limited in our transportation. We are not allowed to go in other areas, even Palestinian area sometimes. We are not allowed to move material from Bethlehem to Jerusalem or from Bethlehem to Ramala without having permits,'' says Zoughbi.
Even flying out of the country is difficult.
"I am not allowed to fly out of Tel Aviv airport,'' he says. "I need to fly out of Jordan, which is more difficult. You need to spend another day or two days. ... The airport from my home in Bethlehem or Jerusalem is one hour away. I need to go through that differently.''
Harassment and bad economic and political conditions are driving many people, especially young men and women, to look for a better life, dignity and education, he says.
The Zoughbis have been in Minnesota several times before and stay with host families. The purpose of their visits is to alert Americans to the fact that Palestinian Christians have lived in the Holy Land for a long time and to tell people about their plight.
"The people also need to hear what is going on there from real people living there,'' he said. "Your media is one-sided and we would like you to hear our side. Americans in general don't understand the situation as what we are feeling and living in because they didn't have the full picture of what's going on.''
The Zoughbis want people to visit the Holy Land. The region is a safe place to travel. The Zoughbis' home in Jerusalem is in a Jewish neighborhood and their home in Bethlehem is in a Muslim neighborhood and they have good friends in both neighborhoods.
The Zoughbis and others are establishing a guest house in Bethlehem where groups can get to know each other and work together toward peace in the region.
"There are groups calling for peace,'' he said. "When we are connecting our voices, it will be higher and we can achieve more aims for peace.''