Monday, December 25, 2006

Advent in Israel

If the Holy Family made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to prepare for the birth of Jesus today, they would be greeted by a 25-foot barrier wall, armed guards, & a huge steel gate resembling those found on nuclear shelters. They could also be harassed for their identification papers, their belongings could be searched & it's quite possible they could be turned away, never allowed to enter Bethlehem. How different the story would be. In November of 2005, the birthplace of Christ was sealed off from Jerusalem; just in time for Christmas.In July 2004, the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, ruled that the construction of the barrier wall in Palestinian territory was "contrary to international law." & a report released in November 2006 by Israeli advocacy group Settlement Watch states that "39 percent of the land used by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is private Palestinian property."

The Bethlehem & Jerusalem I visited in 1986 is a world away from the tensions which would confront me today, so I was really happy to hear that a party who reflected the multi-faith diversity I witnessed, were to make a pilgrimage just before Christmas. I saw Jerusalem shared between Jews, Christians (of all denominations) & Armenians shared the space, & sometimes literally the buildings they used for worship*.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, Bishop Nathan Hovannisian, Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain & the Rev David Coffey, Moderator of the Free Churches, made an Advent visit to Bethlehem & East Jerusalem. The pilgrims crossed on foot from Jerusalem into Bethlehem & took part in a 4 station pilgrimage vigil which included the Star Gate & Manager Square. A Mass was a held in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, on the site where Jesus was born.

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the Israeli wall around Bethlehem saying that it is “a sign of all that is wrong in the human heart”. Dr Rowan Williams explained that the pilgrimage was meant to show solidarity with the Christians of Bethlehem. 'We're here to say that the sufferings of the people here are ours to. We're visiting Christians who suffer terrible economic hardship & daily anxiety about their homes & their security. We'll be alongside people, Christians, Jews & Muslims, whose lives have been wrecked in different ways by terrorism & by the sense that they're hated & feared by each other. We'll be with people who are really desperate to find some sort of hope, some way out of the cycle of violence & insecurity.' Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said: ' I came say to all Bethlehemites, particularly the Christians who are here, that the rest of the Christian Church is with them.' Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor told the BBC that the Pilgrimage was an 'act of solidarity. We are here to express our desire for peace in this land of conflict,' he said. 'Our presence here is not just symbolic.'Refugee Camps are home to Palestinians who fled what is now Israel & West Jerusalem in 1948 & 1967. The main artery between Bethlehem & Jerusalem is now closed. This main road previously sustained a vibrant economy in this area. Since the wall was built, 1.5k inside the Bethlehem district, the area has become a ‘ghost town’ as businesses have been forced to close. Jerusalem & Bethlehem have always formed part of the same diocese. The two communities have been historically interdependent through kinship, trade, education, medical & social services. The imposed separation presents a grave challenge to the survival of both communities & threatens to erase centuries-old traditions. Some historic Christian rituals, such as the colourful Easter Procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem are already extinct. Families who live close to settlements have found themselves stranded between the wall & Jerusalem, without access to education & medical services.

A dove of peace for this Christma & the future.

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