Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, with the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and the Moderator of the Free Churches, Rev David Coffey, and the Primate of the Armenian Church, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian pray in the Grotto in the Church of the Nativity to show solidarity with Palestinian Christians at Christmas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem December 21, 2006. (MaanImages/Fadi Tanas)
The Israeli-built wall is “a sign of all that is wrong in the human heart”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said today in Bethlehem.
Speaking to the town’s civic representatives shortly after walking through the wall, Dr Williams said the wall symbolised “the terrible fear of the other, of the stranger, which keeps us all in one kind of prison or another”, from which God 2,000 years ago came to release people.
Dr Williams was speaking on behalf of a delegation of UK church leaders to the town of Christ’s birth, which included the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the moderator of the Free Churches, David Coffey, and the Armenian patriarch of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian.
Accompanied by Christian church leaders from Jerusalem, the delegation made its way through the notorious checkpoint at the entrance to the town, which prevents all but a few Bethlehemites - who need special permits - from traveling and trading with neighbouring Jerusalem.
The church leaders had planned to walk through the pedestrian checkpoint - an elaborate steel construction involving turnstiles, CCTV cameras, and gun-wielding soldiers.
But at the last moment, the Israeli security forces diverted them through the less humiliating vehicle entrance point, causing camera crews waiting on the other side to rush to get pictures.
The delegation walked from the checkpoint down Star St to Manger Square, following the route said to have been made 2,000 years ago by Mary and Joseph.
They were greeted in the square by civic leaders at the International Peace Centre, close to the Basilica of the Nativity.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks were in response to a speech by Bethlehem’s Mayor, Dr Victor Batarsheh, which described how Bethlehem was now cut off from the outside world by the wall, causing economic hardship and the emigration of families. Bethlehem, he said, had been “transformed into an open prison” by the wall.
He told the church leaders that future peace depended on “dialogue, not separation.”
“Your presence is challenging this ugly wall,” Mayor Batarseh told them.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said they were “here to say to the people of Bethlehem that they are not forgotten. We are here to say: what affects you affects us. We are here to say, your suffering is our suffering too, in prayers and in thought and in hope.”
“We are here to say, in this so troubled and complex land, that justice and security are never something which one person claims and the expense of another, or which one community claims at the expense of another. We are here to say that security for one is security for all. And for one to live under the threat of occupation or of terror is a problem for all.”
Citing an Advent hymn which sings of “Jesus Christ, the one who comes the prison bars to break”, Dr Williams said it was the church leaders’ “prayer and our hope for all of you that the prison of poverty and disadvantage, the prison of fear and anxiety, will alike be broken.”
He added that the church leaders had come because the Incarnation “assures us that these prisons could be broken, broken by the act of God in whose sight all are equally precious - Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim; and for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of one is affront to all.”
Following the speeches, the Mayor of Bethlehem declared the delegates honorary citizens of Bethlehem.
The delegates then made their way to the Basilica of the Nativity, where they prayed at the spot in a cave said to be where Jesus was born. As well as the Greek Orthodox-controlled Basilica itself, they visited the Catholic church alongside, from where the delegates made their way down to the cave where St Joseph is said to have received the angel’s warning to flee Bethlehem. Alongside it is another cave where St Jerome made the first translation of the Bible.
The delegates return Saturday, after a day of prayers and visits in the town of Christ’s birth.
The visit by church leaders coincides with the release of surveys in the US and in Bethlehem commissioned by Open Bethlehem.
The surveys show widespread ignorance in the US of Bethlehem and its plight. But the poll, which was carried out by Zogby, also revealed that if Americans knew that the wall had severed Bethlehem and Jerusalem and had led to the large-scale Israeli annexation of (mainly Christian-owned) land, they would oppose the wall.
Full text of Dr. Williams’s speech follows:
Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences, Your Graces
We are overwhelmed by the welcome we have received and although we are used - we who have been visitors before - to being welcomed with generosity, today has been exceptional.
We are indeed here to say to the people of Bethlehem that they are not forgotten.
We are here to say: what affects you affects us. We are here to say, your suffering is our suffering too, in prayers and in thought and in hope.
We are here to say, in this so troubled and complex land, that justice and security are never something which one person claims and the expense of another, or which one community claims at the expense of another. We are here to say that security for one is security for all. And for one to live under the threat of occupation or of terror is a problem for all.
The wall, which we walked through a little while ago, is a sign not simply of the passing problem in the politics of one region; it is a sign of the things which are deeply wrong in the human heart itself. That terrible fear of the other, of the stranger, which keeps us all in one kind or another of prison. In one of the hymns we sing in English during the Advent season, we sing about Jesus Christ, the one who comes the prison bars to break. And it’s our prayer and our hope for all of you that the prison of poverty and disadvantage, the prison of fear and anxiety, will alike be broken.
We are here on pilgrimage because we trust that 2,000 years ago an event took place here which assures us that these prisons could be broken, broken by the act of God in whose sight all are equally precious - Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. And for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of one is affront to all. That is why we are here. We are here not to visit an ancient and interesting site; we are not here to visit a theme park. We are here to visit a place and a people which speak of the freedom of God to set human beings free. That is the truth which remains the same day after day, year after day, and millennium after millennium. It is that Good News which has driven us here. It is that Good News which teaches us the response to despair, and the response to the terrible conditions 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. Because you are a gift for us. Unlike the wise men who came from the east 2,000 years ago, we, the 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. So pray for us, pray that we may be strong, and loyal friends to you, and to all the peoples of this land. And we shall pray for you also.
‘Open Bethlehem’ is a Save the City campaign launched in November 2005 announcing the creation of the Bethlehem passport- an honourary citizenship of the city open to all in the world. The campaign works with church leaders, media and decision makers around the world to help focus world attention on Bethlehem’s plight. It also acts as a bridge for partnerships of all kinds from helping set up new tour operations to organising international events in Bethlehem.