Associated Press
Sister Elisabeth Noirot plays with a Palestinian orphan at La Creche in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The nuns of Le Creche, the only orphanage in Bethlehem, have raised generations of children in this biblical town.

But only four aging nuns remain, down from a dozen 30 years ago, and the Roman Catholic church is struggling to replace them. In the meantime, they have hired a professional staff to do jobs once solely performed by nuns.

"I am happy for the life I have chosen," said Sister Elisabeth Noirot, 58, of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, one of the Holy Land's largest and oldest Catholic orders, which runs the orphanage. "But it is in the hands of God if others will follow."

Similar scenes are occurring across the Holy Land, where hospitals, schools and charities are feeling the effects of a dwindling population of monks and nuns to run them. In some cases, they have hired increasing numbers of lay people and professionals to cover the shortfall. In others, well-established orders have handed over emptied, coveted properties to newer Christian groups.

"We are going through a long period of passage, of transition," said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan order in the Middle East and a top church official in the Holy Land. "We are changing in different ways. We have not to be desperate."

The shrinking numbers of apostolic orders, where nuns and monks undertake a charity or service, mirror a similar trend in the Christian population in the Holy Land and the broader Middle East.

Less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories today is Christian, down from more than 7 percent around the time of Israel's independence 65 years ago, according to Naim Ateek, director the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, a leading Christian think tank.

Several factors are behind the decline, including higher birthrates of Jews and Muslims and an exodus driven by continued Israeli-Palestinian violence and better opportunities in the West. In some instances, particularly in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Christians have been subject to intimidation by a minority of Muslims.

Before retiring, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep concerns about Christians in the Middle East. On his final foreign trip, a visit to Lebanon last September, Benedict warned that a Middle East without Christians "would no longer be the Middle East." The plight of Catholics in the cradle of Christianity is sure to be a priority for the next pope.

Worldwide, the number of nuns has shrunk one-third over 40 years, from about 1 million in in 1970 to 721,935 in 2010, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington. The number of monks and friars similarly dropped from about 80,000 in 1970 to 54,665 in 2010.

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Even so, the church's struggles in the Holy Land are remarkable, given the area's importance to Christianity. According to Christian traditions, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, spent much of his life in Nazareth and the northern Galilee region of Israel, and was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem.

According to the Vatican, the number of nuns in Israel fell from 983 to 959 between 2006 and 2009, contrasting with a rise in priests and members of religious orders in places like Africa, where the church is growing, and follows the trend of dwindling priests and members of religious orders in Europe.