Karneg Balekdjian

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Dec 22 2004

Christian exodus from Holy Land
Bethlehem's fate highlights dwindling community's woes

By Ara Ayer
NBC News
Updated: 2:54 p.m. ET Dec. 22, 2004

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Christians forced out
Karneg Balekdjian, a bespectacled, 30-year-old clerk for the Armenian Church of Jerusalem, won't be celebrating Christmas this year with his family.

'If Joseph and Mary tried to come today, Israeli soldiers would check their papers, rummage through their baggage and rudely turn them away.'

He recently packed his suitcases, said goodbye to his loved ones and the only home he's ever known. "I'm not leaving Jerusalem for opportunity," said Karneg "but for love."

Israeli officials barred Balekdjian's 26-year old bride, Ivette Askandarian, from immigrating to Israel. Born and raised in Iran — but Christian and ethnically Armenian — Ivette couldn't even visit Karneg in Jerusalem yet alone live with him.

"We had no idea," Balekdjian sighed, "our lives together would begin with forced separation."

Israeli immigration rules shut out people born in countries hostile to Israel. Yet Jews born in those same hostile countries can visit Israel and immigrate without a problem.

Balekdjian, conscious of the double standard, appealed to the Israeli Interior ministry with little effect. "I went to the Interior Ministry twice a week for almost a year, most times I couldn't even get through the door."

"My wife is not Muslim, not a terrorist, not a threat to Israel," said Balekdjian. "Yet as Christians we were not allowed to live here." He said the Armenian Church even tried to sponsor his wife with a job, but the Israelis said no.

Part of the growing exodus of Christians leaving the holy land for better lives, Balekdjian, feels guilty for leaving his family and Jerusalem behind. But, he "really didn't have a choice but to join his wife," according to his mother, Angel Balekdjian.

Cradling a framed photo of Balekdjian and his wife in the sitting room of her stone house, his mother said, "Christians will finish from here, slowly. Slowly we will go."

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