On January 12th, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) brought almost 1,000 Arab Christian children from thirteen villages in three countries to Bethlehem in celebration of the hope of Christmas.
On January 12th, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) brought almost 1,000 Arab Christian children from thirteen villages in three countries to Bethlehem in celebration of the hope of Christmas. They marched to call for peace and justice in the Holy Land, and stood in solidarity with the people of Bethlehem, which is encircled by an Israeli separation wall.
Many of the children had never been to the Church of the Nativity because of restrictions on movement and economic hardship, even though it is one of the holiest sites in Arab Christian traditions. The children’s voices rang through the streets carrying the message of peace to Bethlehem as they marched under the exhortation of Jesus as their theme: “Allow the little children to come unto me”.
This year’s Journey to Bethlehem is the third annual event hosted by HCEF, in an effort to encourage and educate young Christians about their faith traditions and declare peace. Children boarded buses early in the morning to pass through the checkpoints and barriers on the way into Bethlehem. Once they had all arrived safely, the children assembled into groups by parish and walked with church leaders and western pilgrims to their destination: Manger Square, and the Church of the Nativity. They carried sign bearing messages of peace and hope, and waved olive branches to symbolize their hopes for peace.
As the children filed in to the heart of the Old City, they were greeted by the Terra Sancta scouts marching band, members of HCEF Birzeit Senior Citizen’s Center, and residents of the town. Bishop Attalla Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate greeted the children with a prayer of welcome and solidarity. He reassured them that the Holy Land and the faith of its people are rejuvenated by their excitement and smiles. Despite the hardship threatening the children as they traveled through checkpoints and over long distances to come to Bethlehem, he said, they showed an inspiring spirit of steadfastness.
Msgr. Kamal Batfish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem called on the children to be ambassadors of peace. He declared, “It is when you make peace amongst yourselves that you help us make peace among us all.” On behalf of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, he said that the Journey to Bethlehem confirms Bethlehem’s ability to spark hope and peace in the world, despite the darkness of its daily life.
Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England said, “Be sure that from this moment on, you are not alone.” The congregation included children from Nazareth, Jerusalem, Zababdeh, Nablus, Jenin, Taybeh, Jifna, Ramallah, Aboud, Taybeh, Birzeit Nablus and Rafidia, as well as western pilgrims, local and visiting church leaders, and the heads of the local community.
Participant Ghada Qupti from Nazareth summed it all up, saying, “It is time for all of us to unite in the body of Christ, and give the example of faith and love among us to the world.”
The children enjoyed two shows given by Al-Harah and Al- Kassbah theatres, Christmas gifts distributed by the seniors, and other games and festivities. After lunch, the children entered the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity and took tours of the site given by local church leaders.
HCEF President Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS, said, “The Journey to Bethlehem is a show of solidarity that we at HCEF developed as part of our Jesus Loves the Children Program. It is a special day commemorating the everlasting promise of peace among nations, and a special prayer for the living stones of the Holy Land: that they will not be forgotten.” He continued, “The western churches that are in partnership with the Holy Land Arab churches and the many individuals that have contributed this unforgettable event were present at all stages. I thank National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, the Shrine of St. Jude in Maryland, St. Andrew Parish in Milford Ohio, St. Lawrence Church in Utica, Market Square Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ohio, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Peace Center in Bethlehem, Al Harah Theatre, and the National Beverage Company for their contributions to our success today.”
The Journey to Bethlehem demonstrated important realities about the universal church: we are one Body, and the Body will not be broken on account of isolation, distance, or differences. All the children went back to their homes with an unforgettable experience and many stories to tell.
To see more photos of the Journey please Click Here.