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.The story has wide coverage in the British press, with the Guardian, the BBC, and the Telegraph all filing reports.
Here is a bit from the Telegraph article:
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was visibly shocked yesterday as he encountered the 30ft high security wall built by Israel around Bethlehem when he led a pilgrimage of Christian leaders to the birthplace of Christ.
The party had to request special permission from the Israeli authorities to be allowed to walk the section of the ancient pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem now cut by the screen of grey concrete.