An appeal from the Holy City of Bethlehem
Some years ago, on what was my first visit to the Holy Land, I made that all important pilgrimage to the birthplace of Jesus Christ – the holy city of Bethlehem.
Since childhood I had dreamt of visiting this city for it represented the birthplace of an important part of my identity as a Christian. Looking back, it was a visit profoundly and spiritually moving and yet deeply shocking and distressing in equal measure.
It was moving to know you are visiting and praying on the spot where the Saviour was born, but shocking to see the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ surrounded by a menacing nine meter high concrete wall topped with barbed wire and watch towers. Israel says the wall is needed for its security but the result has been a dramatic isolation of Bethlehem, an isolation that threatens the life and the future of its communities.
The visit brought back to me other trips I made over the years to the once divided Germany and wider Warsaw Pact nations and also to parts of the divided island of my native Ireland. Those images of isolation and divide never left me. Yet at the same time my pilgrimage to Bethlehem filled me with a sense of real optimism knowing that much like the German and the Irish walls, this Israeli wall in the heart of the Holy Land will inevitably fall one day and divided communities on both sides would be reunited.
Photo by Muaya Alayan.
One lady whom I met on that journey was Leila Sansour. She inspired me to look closer and deeper at what was around me. She was well placed to do so as she comes from one of the oldest Roman Catholic families in Bethlehem who can trace their roots back more than 500 years. For her Bethlehem is not only holy, it is also home. Yet, the more I listened to her stories the more I realized how precarious she felt her future is in this land. It will take a lot for the Christian community to survive the challenge.
But, she was not going to give up. She told me, how in 2005, while working on a film about Bethlehem, she had also founded and launched Open Bethlehem – an organisation which works to encourage greater international engagement with the city to help preserve its heritage and communities.
The project seeks to build global support for the city through a network of ambassadors, honorary citizens, who pledge to work to give Bethlehem a greater voice and help raise awareness about the challenges it faces today. On my part, it felt wonderful to be able to support such a worthy organisation and such an important cause.
Historic Visit by Church Leaders
I first became aware of Open Bethlehem when the Constantinian Order’s then Delegation Prior and knight in Britain, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, recounted the powerful Christmas Day visit he made with the then Archbishop of Canterbury and fellow delegation knight Dr Rowan Williams in 2006. The visit came following a series of meetings in London with Open Bethlehem during their launch and appeal to the heads of churches. The late Cardinal reminded me that much like the Constantinian Order, Palestine shares St George as its patron saint and that we as knights and dames should try to help and build a partnership with this city.
I remember too being so moved by another of our Order’s senior ecumenical knights, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said of Leila’s work “Open Bethlehem is a nonviolent attempt to save a city that belongs to many in the world. It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.” I cannot agree more with his sentiment and I am very keen to share with you here Leila’s account of Bethlehem in recent months as the city comes out of one lockdown, an experience shared around the world, into another one that it has to endure on its own- that of an iconic city besieged and kept away from the eyes of the world.
I very much hope that her account will move you, just like it moved me to do everything you can to support this very worthy project and help us promote the interests of Bethlehem at a time when the city needs us most.
"Catholic and Anglican Bishops from the Holy Land Coordination group have called on the UK government and parliamentarians to help prevent annexation of the West Bank. Their intervention follows a recent statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster expressing the churches' strong opposition to plans for annexation, which local Christian leaders have warned would "bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process."