Most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims, a pre-Christmas survey of US perceptions of the town has shown. Only 15 per cent of Americans realise that it is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank. The nationwide survey, carried out by top US political pollsters Zogby International, canvassed 15,000 American respondents.
The poll, which is being released on the eve of the arrival in Bethlehem of the Catholic and Anglican church leaders in the UK, was commissioned by the campaign organisation Open Bethlehem.
The US poll coincides with a survey carried out in Bethlehem itself canvassing 1000 respondents from the three urban centres of Bethlehem, where the population splits almost equally between Muslims and Christians.
The surveys have put the spotlight on the plight of the town, which has been fast losing its indigenous Christian population since the construction of the Israeli wall plunged Bethlehem into economic crisis.
The two surveys show that American perceptions of the town are wildly at odds with the perceptions of those who live there.
While the Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9%) to blame it on Islamic politics and are reluctant (7.4%) to blame Israel.
And while four out of ten Americans believe that the wall exists for Israel's security, more than nine out of ten Bethlehemites believe it is part of a plan by Israel to confiscate Palestinian land.
The Zogby survey shows strong support for the town in the US, where 65.5% of the population want the UN to list it as a world heritage site. Americans are also strongly in favour (80.6%) of Bethlehem retaining a strong Christian presence.
Americans are also ambivalent about the Israeli wall, with 31.5% in favour of it, with another 31.6% opposed.
But more than two-thirds of Americans believe Bethlehem is unsafe to visit, while 80% of Bethlehemites consider their town safe for visitors.
Tomorrow sees the arrival in Bethlehem of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. They are accompanied by the Revd David Coffey, moderator of the Free Churches Group, and the Rt Revd Nathan Hovhannisian, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Great Britain.
While the US survey showed that Americans are sceptical about Muslims and Christians living contentedly alongside each other - only 17% thought they lived together in peaceful coexistence - the Palestinian survey showed they do: around 90% of Christians said they had Muslim friends, and vice-versa.
The Israeli government could well be shaken by the discovery that Americans' tolerance of the wall would be strained by the discovery that it separates communities and families, cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem, and requires the seizure of privately-owned land.
US Christians, meanwhile, are likely to be shocked by the discovery that seven out of ten Christians in Bethlehem believe Israel treats the town's Christian heritage with brutality or indifference.
The Bethlehem poll, which was carried out by the Palestinian Centre for research and Cultural Dialogue, shows on the other hand that more than two-thirds (73.3%) of Bethlehem's Christians believe that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage with respect. That result will surprise some who believe that the election of Hamas has strained Christian-Muslim relations in the town.
Leila Sansour, Open Bethlehem's Chief Executive, says:
Our US poll shows overwhelming support for Bethlehem's Christian heritage, yet our survey of Bethlehem's own citizens shows the city cannot retain this heritage and its Christian community while the wall remains.
The choice is stark. Either the wall stays and Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town. Or Bethlehem retains its Christian population, in which case the wall has to come down. The international community needs to wake up to what is happening and choose.