Church and civic leaders in Bethlehem, together with the Anglican and Catholic bishops of Jerusalem, have welcomed the plans by UK church leaders to make an Advent pilgrimage to Bethlehem - which is facing isolation, depopulation and economic collapse due to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the presence of the separation wall.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Moderator of the Free Churches the Rev David Coffey, and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian will make their four-day visit to the area between 20-23 December 2006.
The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt Rev Riah H Abu El-Assal, has said that what is often called "the Holy Land" is anything but. It has been blighted by conflict and injustice. He and other church figures have called on people of the three great Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to work together so that it can truly become "the Land of the Holy One", rather than the possession of any one group.
The focal point of the British church leaders' visit will be a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - where every Advent and Christams in recent memory celebrations of the birth of Christ have been mired in argument and division.
Speaking on behalf of all the Christian Churches of Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, said: "The Patriarchs and Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem look forward to welcoming to Bethlehem and Jerusalem this Christmas, the ecumenical delegation of our brother bishops and archbishops of England [UK]."
He continued: "At a time when our communities in these two Holy cities are separated by a wall and checkpoints the visit of the churches' ecumenical delegation is a reminder to us, to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and to the world, that the pilgrims' path of hope and love must remain open."
Anglican Bishop Riah of Jerusalem added: "This historical and ecumenical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem demonstrates that the bonds of faith are stronger than any divisions between our churches. To Christians on the ground, it renews the hope that they are not forgotten, despite their current imprisonment behind walls and fences. This Christmas, we will pray alongside the distinguished pilgrims from Britain in the certainty that there is always hope in this world."
The visit has also been welcomed by the various sponsors of the Open Bethlehem project, which campaigns to keep the city open to the world at a time when the Israeli separation wall and the state's land annexations are causing hardship for its inhabitants. It has been backed by global faith leaders and grassroots workers for peace and justice.
Open Bethlehem's chief executive, Leila Sansour, said: "We pray that this pilgrimage will help focus world attention on the challenges faced by our communities on the ground and that it will inspire Christians as well as people of other faiths to take an active role in safeguarding a two-thousand year old tradition that is shared by millions in the world. We hope that this visit heralds the rebirth of pilgrimage to Bethlehem, a city that has survived because it has been open to the world."
She concluded: "The need to open Bethlehem to the world has never been more important. Bethlehem is witnessing serious waves of emigration due to the economic hardship imposed by the system of closure and the practices of Israeli occupation. The emigration is particularly pronounced among the Christian community. Our failure to act now will have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East and on Christianity worldwide. We want to remind the world that all of us are citizens of Bethlehem. In the New Year, we urge everyone to follow in the footsteps of these distinguished pilgrims and take up their citizenship by visiting our town."