England and Wales Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams have announced plans for an Advent visit to Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, reports Independent Catholic News.
The two church leaders will be joined by Bishop Nathan Hovannisian, Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain and the Rev David Coffey, Moderator of the Free Churches, in their capacities as joint presidents of the ecumenical group Churches Together in England.
In an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC Sunday AM programme yesterday morning, Cardinal Cormac said the visit was not a political mission, but a pastoral visit, "to encourage the minority Christian community in Jerusalem and especially in Bethlehem."
The Cardinal said: "I think it's a very important visit really because it should be clear to everyone that in the Holy Land there are not only Muslims and Jews, there are also Christians. And it would be very sad if Christians were, as it were, being forced to leave because of the political situation there."
He added: "I think that's very sad because the Holy Land is our land too, where there is the birthplace and life of Christ."
The Christian community in Bethlehem is the oldest in the world and still conducts liturgies in the language Jesus spoke. But in recent years numbers have fallen dramatically. Until 20 years ago, 80 per cent of Bethlehem's citizen's were Christians. Only 15 per cent remain now.
Many thousands of Christian Palestinians have been forced to emigrate because of high unemployment. Others no longer live in Bethlehem because their homes and businesses which has been annexed by Israel by the construction of the 30 foot high security wall that has been built around the town, separating it from Jerusalem.
In his Midnight Mass homily at Westminster Cathedral last year (2005), Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor pleaded for the town of Bethlehem, saying he deplored the exodus of Christians and the current condition of the town of Christ's birth.
He said Bethlehem was "corralled" and "blocked in" and its economy in shreds as a result of Israeli security measures in response to terrorist violence.
Describing the people of the town as "terribly alone", he urged Christians and others to visit.
He also prayed that "the eyes and the hearts of the world be opened to what is happening there" and pleaded for a new strategy for peace , saying the Holy Land conflict had inflicted "a terrible wound on humanity" and urged the parties to the conflict to "bind that wound" and "build bridges, not walls."
On the Feast of the Epiphany this year, Dr William further urged Christians around the world to make pilgrimages to Bethlehem and remember the struggling town in their prayers.
Both archbishops have given their support to the Open Bethlehem project, which is encouraging personal visitors and businesses to visit Bethlehem. See: http://www.openbethlehem.org/