Hanner Nasir, the Christian mayor of this West Bank town, on Monday said living under an occupation was an offence to human dignity.

"Each year I try not to be gloomy in my Christmas message," he said. "But the harsh facts on the ground and the clouds of instability and suffering that continue to overshadow Bethlehem strongly push me to this direction.

"Living under occupation is certainly the most painful experience man can face and the biggest offence to human rights and dignity," he said at a news conference in the city hall.

"We each day have to swallow the bitterness of the Israeli practices: killing of our people, demolition of houses, arrest and humiliation.

"The closure and oppressive siege have crippled Bethlehem and deteriorated the living conditions of its people to an unprecedented degree," he said.

Christians leaving

About 2400 Christians out of a total of approximately 40,000 living in Bethlehem and surrounding areas in the southern West Bank have left since the September 2000 start of the Palestinian intifada, according to Nasir.

"Imagine the city of Bethlehem with no Christians," he said.

"Christians all over the world should know this reality. If we don't have a quick breakthrough in the peace process more are going to leave."