The Catholic and Anglican bishops of Jerusalem have welcomed the announcement by UK church leaders of their pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Moderator of the Free Churches the Revd David Coffey, and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian are to undertake a four-day visit to the Holy Land from the 20th-23rd December. The focal point of their visit will be a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Speaking on behalf of all the Christian Churches of Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, said:
“The Patriarchs and Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem look forward to welcoming to Bethlehem and Jerusalem this Christmas, the ecumenical delegation of our brother bishops and archbishops of England. At a time when our communities in these two Holy cities are separated by a wall and checkpoints the visit of the churches’ ecumenical delegation is a reminder to us, to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and to the world, that the pilgrims’ path of hope and love must remain open.”
The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal, says, “This historical and ecumenical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem demonstrates that the bonds of faith are stronger than any divisions between our churches. To Christians on the ground, it renews the hope that they are not forgotten, despite their current imprisonment behind walls and fences. This Christmas, we will pray alongside the distinguished pilgrims from Britain in the certainty that there is always hope in this world.”
The visit has also been welcomed by Open Bethlehem, which campaigns to keep the city open to the world at a time when the Israeli wall and land annexations are causing hardship for its inhabitants.
Open Bethlehem’s chief executive, Leila Sansour, said:
“We pray that this pilgrimage will help focus world attention on the challenges faced by our communities on the ground and that it will inspire Christians as well as people of other faiths to take an active role in safeguarding a two-thousand year old tradition that is shared by millions in the world. We hope that this visit heralds the rebirth of pilgrimage to Bethlehem, a city that has survived because it has been open to the world.”
“The need to open Bethlehem to the world has never been more important. Bethlehem is witnessing serious waves of emigration due to the economic harshsip imposed by the system of closure and the practices of Israeli occupation. The emigration is particularly pronounced among the Christian community. Our failure to act now will have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East and on Christianity world-wide. We want to remind the world that all of us are citizens of Bethlehem. In the New Year, we urge everyone to follow in the footsteps of these distinguished pilgrims and take up their citizenship by visiting our town.”
Notes to the editor:
About Open Bethlehem:
‘Open Bethlehem’ is a Save the City campaign launched in november 2005 announcing the creation of the Bethlehem passport- an honourary citizenship of the city open to all in the world. The first recipient of the passport was his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
The campaign works with church leaders, media and decision makers around the world to help focus world attention on Bethlehem’s plight. It also acts as a bridge for partnerships of all kinds from helping set up new tour operations to organising international events in Bethlehem.
Open Bethlehem invites all tour operators, church groups and aspiring tour leaders to contact us if they need help with information on how to organise pilgrimages and cultural trips to Bethlehem.
We also invite people to contact us in the new year for information on available travel programs or if they want to promote tours already in operation.
Facts about Bethlehem:
The Wall in and around Bethlehem has reduced the district to its urban core. It severs the built-up areas from thousands of acres of agricultural land and water resources. There are 27 Israeli settlements in the Bethlehem district built on land confiscated from Bethlehem’s private owners. It is predicted that once the wall is complete Bethlehem will lose 70% of its territory altogether.
A system of cement walls, electric fences, settlers only roads and checkpoints creates a prison-like environment for the people of Bethlehem. The World Bank cites the closure regime as the direct cause of the humanitarian crisis.
70% of the population in Bethlehem lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is higher than 60%. Tourism, which accounts for 65% of the Bethlehem economy is now almost entirely controlled by Israeli companies, meaning that the few tourists that come to Bethlehem don’t stay for more than a few hours. The Hotel Association in Bethlehem has reported that only 2.5% of rooms were booked in 2005 in comparison to 22.1% in 2000.
The Christian population in Bethlehem accounts for 41.3% of the population in Bethlehem town proper and 26% in the whole district. Following Israeli invasions in 2001-2002, Bethlehem lost 10% of it Christian population as 3000 Christians left the city. UNOCHA report, December 2004: http://www.reliefweb.int/library/documents/2004/ocha-opt-20dec.pdf
The emigration of Christians is a serious threat to Palestine’s mixed heritage which embraced diversity for centuries.
The Jerusalem-Bethlehem dioceses of the Latin (Catholic), Anglican and Armenian Churches – in common with the Eastern Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches – is centred on the various cathedrals of Jerusalem. The Israeli wall cuts these ancient diocese into parcels, separating churchmen from their congregations and families from each other.
During Open Bethlehem’s launch in November 2005 Churches Together in Britain and Ireland stated: “The short road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem has always been the great high road of the Christian faith, linking as it does the cities of Our Lord’s birth and resurrection. It has been trodden by countless millions of pilgrims in the last 2,000 years. We are dismayed that the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is now closed to the great majority of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, and passable only with much inconvenience and expenditure of time by pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. We view this closure and the barrier being built around Bethlehem as a grave injustice to its people, a serious threat to its economic life and social fabric, and an affront to all Christians.”
For more information please contact:
Open Bethlehem. Bethlehem office: e-mail: email@example.com
Open Bethlehem. London office: e-mail: Charlottecarson@openbethlehem.org