Church leaders in England are asking parish churches and congregations throughout the country to pray for 'the little town of Bethlehem' as they approach the final week of Advent –- the Church's season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
This request comes in the context of an ecumenical pilgrimage to the place of Jesus' birth being made just before Christmas by the four representative leaders of English churches: the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams; Free Churches Moderator, the Rev. David Coffey; and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian.
The leaders hope that one of the effects of their coming together to make this pilgrimage will be to convey to the Christian communities of the Holy Land the solidarity of Christians. Those communities need to know that they are not forgotten and that their witness over two millennia, often in demanding circumstances, is acknowledged and appreciated. The pilgrimage is intended to offer hope and encouragement to these beleaguered communities.
"It is for local congregations to determine how best to respond to this appeal for prayer," Williams said. "On the final two Sundays of Advent many will be using scripture readings mentioning Bethlehem and carols such as 'O little town of Bethlehem' –- perhaps that would be the moment to pause and remember the people of Bethlehem and all those from around the world who will be making a pilgrimage there at Christmas time."
Murphy-O'Connor said: "We are keen that local Christian communities pray with us as we prepare, in this Advent season, to make this pilgrimage and indeed when we are on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The children of Bethlehem and their future are particularly in our hearts at this time. Your prayers and support, for us and the people of Bethlehem, are a means of expressing our unity in Christ."
A provisional itinerary and other information supporting the ecumenical pilgrimage will be available at: http://www.rcdow.org.uk/holyland
Meanwhile, the Catholic and Anglican bishops of Jerusalem have welcomed the announcement by the UK church leaders of their pilgrimage to 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 in Jerusalem, the Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal, said: "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 hardship 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."