Home > Queensland Synod News > Religious leaders make Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem

Religious leaders make Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem

A delegation of British church leaders are spending several nights in Bethlehem, the now beleaguered town where Jesus was born, but whose Christian population has dramatically dwindled in recent years. To mark Christmas, the delegation, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, arrived in Bethlehem on 21 December after walking a section of the ancient pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

After clearing an Israeli military checkpoint, the delegation passed through Israel’s controversial separation barrier, which separates the West Bank town from the Holy City.
The barrier loops its way around three sides of Bethlehem, cutting the town off from the southern edge of Jerusalem, which should be only a few minutes drive away. While foreigners are able to visit Bethlehem, local residents cannot leave the town without applying for a permit from Israeli authorities.

"We’re here to say that the sufferings of the people here are ours too," Williams said at the Bethlehem Peace Centre after walking in the town’s centre. "We want to do what we can to alleviate them and we hope to see a Bethlehem that is open for all pilgrims."

Anglican leader Williams was joined by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; the Free Churches’ Moderator in England, the Rev. David Coffey and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian. The delegation was to fly back to London on 23 December.

Israeli officials assert the barrier is necessary to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel and say it could be re-routed or torn down if violence ceases and peace talks resume. But Palestinians say the barrier’s route is a de facto border and its existence prevents the creation of the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in 1967.

Before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 2000, Bethlehem attracted more than 90 000 pilgrims a month. At Christmas in 2005, about 20 000 visitors made their way to Bethlehem. However, the town’s mayor, Victor Batarseh, said the town would be "extremely lucky if we come anywhere close to that figure this year".

Of Bethlehem’s 30 000 residents, the number of Christian residents has dwindled from about 85 percent in 1948 to just 25 per cent now. The intifada, along with the barrier’s construction, has taken its toll on the Christian population who due to large diaspora communities elsewhere, are able to emigrate to places such as the United States, Latin America and Canada.

The erection of the barrier, the collapse of the tourism industry and the lack of pilgrimages to the town "where the Prince of Peace was born" has had a devastating effect on the local economy, Batarseh said. In addressing the delegation, he asserted the barrier had "transformed Bethlehem into a large prison whose keys were kept by the occupiers".

All articles (c) Ecumenical News International