The Israeli separation wall is "a sign of all that is wrong in the human heart", the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said today in Bethlehem - calling for bridges rather than barriers to deal with problems of violence and division.
The Archbishop, spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, along with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, of the Armenian Church of Great Britain and the Rev David Coffey, Moderator of the Free Churches, crossed through the wall and checkpoints into Bethlehem on the second day of their pre-Christmas pilgrimage in the region.
Each of the British church leaders - who will meet with Christians, Muslims and Jews on their trip - expressed concern about the effect of the wall on the people of Bethlehem and surrounding towns.
It is supposed to be a bulwark against terror attacks, but critics argue that it is making the situation worse and that research shows it is not effective for the purpose the authorities say it was constructed.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor told the BBC: "The sheer variety of communities within the Palestinian areas has always been one of its strengths. Co-existence has been easy and often fruitful. If that were to end that would be a very sad signal for the Middle East and the rest of the world."
In his Christmas homily last year at Westminster Cathedral, the Cardinal said that Bethlehem was "blocked in" by the Israeli security wall and checkpoints. Yesterday (21 December 2006) he said the international community needed to help resolve the problems of the region.
The BBC's correspondent in Bethlehem, Wyre Davis, has commented that in the past, up to 50,000 pilgrims used to visit Bethlehem, but this year fewer than 5,000 are expected.
Speaking to the city's civic representatives shortly after walking through the wall, Dr Williams said the wall symbolized "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 in the shape of Jesus.
The church leaders had planned to walk through the pedestrian checkpoint ‚Äì 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.
Stressing the need for bridges not barriers, he told the church leaders that future peace depended on "dialogue, not separation." He was responding to the comment from Mayor Batarseh that "your presence is challenging this ugly wall."
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."
He continued: "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 ‚Äì Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim; and for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of one is affront to all."
However, not everyone has welcomed the church leaders‚Äô visit. Meir Avrahami, who lives near Bethlehem, told Ekklesia that the cause of the city‚Äôs problems was ‚Äúan influx of radical Islamists‚Äù and challenged the delegation to visit her to ‚Äúexplain to my children why they promote hostility towards Jews‚Äù.
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 to Britain on Saturday 23 December 2006, after a day of prayers and visits in the town reputed to be the site 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.