To our readers: The Episcopal News Service thanks Jim Rosenthal for this special report from Bethlehem, and wishes everyone a joyous and prayerful Christmastide in which to reflect upon the importance of peacemaking in the Middle East and around the world.
[ACNS, Bethlehem, December 22, 2006] -- A special pilgrimage of religious leaders, visiting Bethlehem in these last days of Advent, 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, concern is increasing for the future of what one bishop calls "the living stones" and the great shrines that "must not become museums," as one Christian from Beit Jala told the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The streets, shops and hotels are "virtually empty," said one civic leader. The pilgrims met a couple from Australia, two people from the United States 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 Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the other pilgrims are the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Armenian Primate of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, and the head of the Baptist World Alliance, the Rev. Dr. David Coffey. All are co-presidents of Churches Together in England. Baptist leader Coffey said he hoped many "would follow their example and come to Bethlehem on pilgrimage."
The pilgrims held prayers at stations and sang 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 airport on December 20 after a 6 a.m. prayer service in St George's Chapel, the pilgrims experienced what many others on pilgrimages face, delays, two hours on a hot plane, thus pushing their full program into a busy start once they reached Tel Aviv.
On their first night the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate offered the pilgrims hospitality. They were presented with icons, crosses and locally made Mother of Pearl Nativity sets. They ended the evening by saying the night prayers of Compline.
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 jewelry, 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 Thursrday evening. Christmas Lutheran Church has a vital role in the local communities with its numerous programmes, elegant guest house and activities.
On December 22 the pilgrims were scheduled to 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.
The pilgrims and their companions ended their prayers in the grotto of the Holy Child. The experience of entering Bethlehem was deepened as the pilgrims and their followers made a station close to Manger Square. At that point they sang the following carol:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
The Archbishop of Canterbury's Remarks at the International Peace Center in Bethlehem
December 21, 2006
Your excellencies, dear brothers and sisters we are I think a little overwhelmed by the welcome that we have received here. And although we are used, we have visited here before to be welcomed with this generosity today has been exceptional.
We are indeed here to say to the people of Bethlehem they are not forgotten. We are here to say that what affects you affects us. We are here to say that your suffering is ours also - in prayer and in thought and in hope. We are here to say, in this so troubled, complex land, that justice and security is never something which one person claims at the expense of another or one community at the expense of another. We are here to say that security for one is security for all. For one to live under threat, whether of occupation, or of terror, is a problem for all, and a pain for all.
The wall which we walked through a little while ago is a sign not simply of a sign of a passing problem in the politics of one region; it is sign of some of the things that are most deeply wrong in the human heart itself. That terrible fear of the other and the stranger which keeps all of us in one another kind of prison.
In one of the hymns which we sing in English during the Advent season we sing about Jesus Christ as the One who comes the prison bars to break. And it is our prayer and our hope for all of you that the prison of poverty and disadvantage, and the prison of fear and anxiety will alike be broken. We are here on pilgrimage because we trust that 2000 years ago an event took place here which assured us that these prisons could be broken, broken by the act of a God in whose sight all are equally precious: Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Moslem. A God for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of any one is an affront to all. That is why we are here.
We are not here to visit an ancient and interesting site. We are not here to visit a museum and we are not here to visit a theme park. We are here to visit a place and people whose very existence speaks of the freedom of God to set human beings free. That is a truth which remains day after day, year after year, millennium after millennium. It is that good news that has driven us here. It is that good news which has teaches us not to despair even in the terrible circumstances in which so many of you now live.
Thank you once again for what you have done to make us feel at home here. We who are now fellow citizens with you here in this place. Pray for us in the western world, for us in England, that our faith may be strengthened by yours. That you are a gift –- remember -- to us. Unlike the wise men who came from the East 2000 years ago, we not very wise men from the West have not come to pour out our gifts. We have come to receive the witness of your faith, your endurance and your hope. To receive the gifts of God from you. So pray for us. Pray that we may be strong. Pray that we may be loyal friends to you and to all the peoples of this land and we shall pray for you also.