British Catholic Conference reaffirms commitment to an open Bethlehem in Pilgrimage with 800 Christian Children

Theme of Pilgrimage: “Do not forbid them to come to me” as Bishops cross the Israeli-built wall into the city of Christ

The Archbishop of Liverpool Patrick Kelly led a delegation of the British Catholic Conference on a pilgrimage entitled ‘Journey to Bethlehem’ on Friday the 12th of January. The theme of the pilgrimage were Christ’s words “Allow the little Children and do not forbid them to come to Me” (Matt 19.13-15), reflecting the state of closure in Bethlehem, the restrictions on movements of the local community and the Israeli-built wall that surrounds Bethlehem and has turned the city of Christ into a prison.

The British delegation joined the heads of the Churches of Jerusalem, world Church leaders and the local mayors in a Bethlehem city parade that gathered more than 800 Christian children from thirty parishes across Palestine: Bethlehem and its sister cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, Jerusalem, Abboud, Nablus, Ramallah and elsewhere. The procession also included Christian children from the Israeli city of Nazareth which has a large Palestinian Christian community. For many children, the pilgrimage was their first trip to Bethlehem – a city only a few miles from their home towns.

Archbishop Kelly stressed his visit was part of an ongoing program to support the Christian Church in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, reminding the congregation at an ecumenical service in the Church of the Nativity that, “The first Christmas began here in extraordinary political circumstances under Roman occupation, yet the light shone through. As Pope Paul VI said: ‘If you want peace, work for Justice’. This is why we are here today.”

Archbishop Kelly emphasized that his visit represented: “The third stage over the past month in the commitment by the Catholic Community in England and Wales to the Church in the Holy Land. The first stage was the ecumenical pilgrimage just before Christmas in which Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor took part.” The present pilgrimage follows the second stage, the filming by the BBC of a Christmas Eve Mass in Liverpool Cathedral that was dedicated to Bethlehem, both as the city of Christ and “as it is today’, which was attended by a representative of Bethlehem’s Christian community.

The Children marched through the streets of Bethlehem, ending with an ecumenical service at the Nativity Church where they listened to sermons by local and visiting Christian leaders under the theme of Christ’s words, “Allow the children and do not forbid them to come unto me; for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to ones like these” (Matt 19. 12-15). Speeches by the church leaders spoke about the joy of life, reflected by the children, but also spoke about the wall that separates Bethlehem from the neighboring cities. Speakers longed for a day when such a wall should not exist in the Holy Land.

Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham William Kenney said: “Peace begins with children. They are the future. Today Bethlehem feels exactly as it was 2000 years ago. The city was under occupation and Christ was born here because of the occupation. This is a very important occasion because it reminds us that children are the same everywhere and they should be allowed to be the same.”

This was the third “Journey to Bethlehem” and the aim of the pilgrimage is to keep Bethlehem open. The pilgrimage is only possible under a special relaxation of the military regulations imposed by the Israel forces that restrict the movement of the Palestinians of Palestine as well as Israeli-Palestinian citizens. The difficulties in arranging such a visit makes these events all the more important moments.

The address from George Ghattas of the HCEF stressed that this visit came in solidarity with the people of Bethlehem, through “the spirit of children who represent the future of The Christian community and the life of the living stones of the Holy Land”. The term ‘Living Stones’ refers to the communities from which Christ drew his disciples, and who remain a living community in the Holy Land. The ‘Living Stones’ are also described as a ‘Fifth Gospel’ who keep alive the language, customs, culture and a continuing tradition from Christ’s time.

Archbishop Kelly said, “I think that the living stones here are important. I think that we all believe the Church will be much poorer if, for instance, we have no people who spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ. They bring it all to life.”

The children represented the variety of denominations of the Holy Land: Latin Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Syriacs (whose liturgy is in Aramaic), Lutheran, Presbyterians and Greek Catholic or ‘Malakites’, the indigenous church of Palestine and a Uniate church in full communion with Rome. The day ended at the Peace Centre on Manger Square where all Church leaders joined the Peace Centre staff to distribute Christmas presents to the children.