Clergy ask world Christians to become pilgrims
ACNS SPECIAL REPORT 22 December 2006
A special pilgrimage of religious leaders for these last days of Advent to Bethlehem has been welcomed by local Christians as a "sign of hope" in the midst of a devastating situation. As Christians dwindle in numbers in Bethlehem, it is becoming an increasing concern for the future of what one bishop calls "the living stones" as well as the great shrines that one Christian from Beit Jala told the Archbishop of Canterbury, "must not become museums". The streets, shops and hotels are "virtually empty" said one civic leader. The pilgrims met a couple from Australia, two people from the USA and one young man from Canada who simply stated "I wanted to spend Christmas where Jesus was born". The local authorities hope many will share this young man's decision and do so all through the year.
Along with the Most Revd Rowan Williams, the other pilgrims are the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Armenian Primate of Britain and the head of the Baptist World Alliance. All are co-presidents of Churches Together in England. Baptist leader, the Revd Dr David Coffey said he hoped many "would follow their example and come to Bethlehem on pilgrimage".
The pilgrims held stational prayers complete with English carols in Bethlehem after walking across the check point, "the wall", midday after a visit to the Tantur Centre. They prayed in St Joseph's Roman Catholic Chapel and ended their vigil in the Church of the Nativity grotto. The day began with a liturgy in the Notre Dame Chapel in Jerusalem, a visit to the Church of the Resurrection and a lecture by Jerome Murphy O'Connor, a well known expert on the Holy Land.
Leaving Heathrow on Wednesday after a 6 a.m. prayer service in St George's Chapel, the pilgrims experienced what many others on pilgrimages face, delays, two hours in hot plane, thus pushing their full programme into a busy start once they reached Tel Aviv. On their first night the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate offered the pilgrims hospitality. The were presented with icons, crosses and locally made Mother of Pearl Nativity sets. They ended the evening by saying Compline (Night Prayer).
The constant theme in prayer and in speaking is solidarity with and hope for the Christian community and "encouraging Christians to come on pilgrimage and open Bethlehem to the world". The empty streets are particularly "shocking so close to Christmas" said one local merchant whose shop was bedecked Christmas lights, Santas, olive wood crib sets, statues and jewellery, but no shoppers.
The Anglican bishops and some Anglican clergy joined the pilgrims with people from many denominations, all taking part in the walk into the town of Jesus' birth. The four pilgrims were made honorary citizens by the Mayor of Bethlehem in the Peace Center that houses the Anglican Communion Christmas Crib exhibition.
The pilgrims were the guests of the International Lutheran Center in Bethlehem Thursday evening. Christmas Lutheran Church has a vital role in the local communities with its numerous programmes, elegant guest house and activities.
On Friday (22nd December) the pilgrims will visit Christian operated ministries of care and will offer prayers at the Shepherd Fields grotto with the YMCA leaders and people from Bethlehem Bible College. They will visit the Christians in Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, home of the famous Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, where legend says the saint lived for some time in his life in cave preserved in the church.
The pilgrims return to London Saturday after a visit to the Armenian Quarter and St James Cathedral in Jerusalem.
by Canon James M Rosenthal
Merry Christmas from Bethlehem