While most of their countrymen slept in late on a Monday morning holiday, 750 of Palestine's youngest pilgrims woke with dawn to take part in HCEF's Second Annual Journey to Jerusalem.

 

While most of their countrymen slept in late on a Monday morning holiday, 750 of Palestine's youngest pilgrims woke with dawn to take part in HCEF's Second Annual Journey to Jerusalem. For one fleeting afternoon, children from 52 of the Holy Land's parishes – representing a wide spectrum of denominations – and 13 different cities gathered together as one Christian body. Long on enthusiasm and full of spirit, they celebrated Easter's renewal and rallied for peace in the city at the heart of the region's faith and politics: Jerusalem.

 A great clamor followed the children throughout the day, though it was exactly the kind of joyful noise one would expect from a crowd so large and so young. Chanting started en route to the Old City, with buses converted into impromptu concert halls for the ride through the countryside. Even groups from Nablus and Jenin, cities in the far northern parts of the West Bank, could not help but to chant, though their journeys began at five o'clock in the morning. Cheers were replaced by Easter hymns at the Old City's De La Salle School, where the children assembled, donned their multi-colored caps, and prepared for their procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The children weren't alone in the morning's commotion. Their animated presence stirred native Jerusalemites awake to the celebration in their midst. As the procession got underway, locals perched on small balconies overlooking the Old City's narrow streets waved as the children passed by. Others joined in the singing. Tourists stopped to snap pictures. Shopkeepers nodded in approval. Outside a barbershop, one patron asked each group of color-coordinated marchers where they were from. With much excitement, he then reported this information to his friends inside. George Ghattas, HCEF's Country Representative, was not at all surprised by this warm welcome. "The people here love visitors," he said, "especially children and especially those from other parts of Palestine. Here's proof that it's not people belonging to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem belonging to the people – to all people."

Indeed, the Journey to Jerusalem was an excellent example of unity and freedom in a still-fractured place. The children, ages 12-14, were chosen to participate in large part because at 16, when they are issued their official ID, access to the holy city and other Israeli-controlled territory becomes next to impossible. For many, the Journey to Jerusalem was their first time visiting the holy sites. Sadly, it could very well be the last time for a good number of these children, too. The combination of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, more permanent and restrictive checkpoints, and the Separation Wall's unchecked construction is – daily – putting Jerusalem beyond the reach of most Palestinians.

This year, HCEF extended a special invitation to five parishes from Nazareth, a Christian town within Israel's borders, to join the pilgrimage with their brothers and sisters in faith from the West Bank. While it is true that Arab Christians from Israel enjoy greater freedoms than their sister communities in Palestine, Father Suhail Khoury, a Nazarene parish priest, still lobbied political and religious leaders for appropriate permissions. "I was refused, at first," he said, "but after many, many calls we were able to get through." For as trying as the process was on Fr. Khoury, he pressed on because he recognized how important it was for his students to have this experience. "Obviously, it's good to visit the holy places, but my students are also learning a lot about life in the West Bank, sharing and praying with other children."

Though late arriving, the group from Nazareth had much better luck than some other groups. Five adult leaders from Nablus were turned away at the city's checkpoint – a place from which cars from inside the city are not allowed to leave, nor is outside vehicular traffic allowed to enter. Additionally, the bus from Jenin was waylaid at the Bethany checkpoint south of Jerusalem and forced to travel halfway around the city to Hizma in the north. All told, those children spent more than six hours on a trip that would take little more than 90 minutes as the crow flies. Worst of all was the plight of the children from Ain Arik, whose plans were foiled when none of their adult leaders were issued permits to travel. Their absence kept HCEF from it's previous goal of 900 pilgrims.

Lamentable as they were, these difficulties were not wholly unexpected. There's a sense in which this is the price you pay "to challenge the barriers in Palestinian society," as Maher Turjman put it. The Regional Director for the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, one of the Journey's principal sponsors, joined the children for their procession through the streets of the Old City, noting that these children did well not to shrink from the challenge of their trip. "It's a pilgrimage, not a picnic," he said.

To their credit, the children, for all their exuberance, treated it as such. Upon arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they lined themselves up outside the door, reverently waiting for the chance to enter. In groups, they were led into the sanctuary, which Christian tradition holds as the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. In a myriad of ways, each child solemnly marked their entrance into the church, paying special regard to the Stone of Anointing, on which Jesus' body was prepared for burial. Lightly tapping both themselves and the stone with the sign of the cross, it was clear that these children took their faith quite seriously. Many also wiped tissues across the stone's surface, capturing some of the fragrant incense it is blessed with as a priceless souvenir and a piece of the holy city they could take back to their families.

For some, the chance to say even a few brief prayers inside the church was the highlight of the trip. Rula Shomali, a 7th grader from Beit Sahour, certainly thought so. "The church was so big," she said. "I could have spent all day there. I won't forget it." Several adult chaperones shared the children's satisfaction with the chance to visit the holy city. Father Andrawes Rafidi, an Orthodox priest from Jiffna, stressed the importance of this visit for his students. "I've been teaching religion for 39 years and telling my students all about these places," he said. "This is the first chance I've had to show them."

Others, though, favored the chance to meet and spend time with other Arab Christians, the region's "living stones." Nassem Antfous, a 14 year-old from Aboud, thought the Journey to Jerusalem "proved that there are Christians living here [in Palestine.] Now I know that I'm not alone." After visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the children marched again through the streets to the opposite side of the Old City to Saint Anne's Church and later bussed to Saint Peter Gallicantu. At both stops, they had time to eat a light brunch and get to know each other better. Johnny Abu-Khalil, a local HCSN member and seminarian, thought the time around the gardens at Saint Anne's and Saint Peter's was every bit as well-spent as the time for prayer in the Holy Sepulchre. "An event like this is wonderful," he said. "If not for this gathering, when would children from these villages ever have the chance to meet each other?" A public relations officer for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, another of the journey's key sponsors, Abu-Khalil was given the day off from his superiors specifically to demonstrate the Patriarchate's support for this event.

Having woken so early and traveled so far, the children could have been forgiven for being fatigued after a long afternoon in the sun. Remarkably, though, their spirit and their voices still soared as the day wound down with a concert at the Maison D'Abraham, a convent across the Kidron Valley from Saint Peter's. A contemporary Christian music band, The Hope, performed a free concert there, delighting the children with new modern interpretations of classic church hymns.

At the concert's end, Father Daoud Khoury, the Orthodox pastor from Taybeh, closed the day with a blessing. He expressed hope that, in future journeys, more clergy would attend, grateful for the chance to grow closer to the children and to shepherd them towards Jerusalem. With his last words, he gave thanks to HCEF for the foundation's efforts on behalf of these young pilgrims. .We thank HCEF for exemplifying love, and we wish them prosperity and success in the future. It is our hope that they have continued support, for they have done so much to improve the lives of our children..

This year's Journey to Jerusalem was made possible thanks to the support of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the Pontifical Mission to Palestine, the National Christian Association, the Tarifi Group and many other private donors. On the ground, both HCEF's Shabibeh Youth Group and members of the local Holy Land Christian Support Network proved invaluable support throughout the day. A newfound partnership with the Saint Xavier Sunday School in Jerusalem paid immediate dividends, as several members served as guides throughout the day.