This year, HCEF’s ‘Bethlehem, The Heart of Christmas’ Campaign, began with a joyous Journey to Bethlehem for Peace with over 1000 children from all parts of the Holy Land participating, followed by a Joint Message of Peace simulcast from Bethlehem and Washington, DC  and carried on the worldwide web.

On Friday, December 3, 2010 over 1000 children from Palestine took part in the Journey to Bethlehem for Peace. Participants were from Zababdeh, Jenin and Nablus, Aboud, Aarik, Jaffa, Birzeit, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. The festivities culminated in an immense procession to the Church of the Nativity with representatives of churches, members of civil society, various organizations and prominent government leaders joining in. At the Church of the Nativity and drawing worldwide attention, the children released a multitude of balloons as their personal act of witness for peace and freedom.

The tradition of the Journey to Bethlehem for Peace was begun by HCEF in 2003. Since then, it has afforded a rare, perhaps only, opportunity for Palestinian Christian children to visit and worship at the birthplace of Jesus even though they may live only a few hours away. The journey has fostered strong bonds of friendship among Christian children of the Holy Land and provided them a day of joy and celebration as they relive the Christmas story. It has brought together local communities to promote peace and understanding, and has increased their appreciation of their common heritage and sense of belonging to Palestine as their Holy Land.

The next day, Saturday, December 4, HCEF hosted the Joint Christmas Message of Peace in a simulcast from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. The event, which was carried on the worldwide web, was held under the auspices of the Most Reverend Bishop William Shomali, Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Most Reverend Barry Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington. Also participating were Dr. Khouloud Daibes, Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Abdul Fatah Hamayel, governor of Bethlehem District, Dr. Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem, and Minister Ziad Al Bandak, Advisor to the Palestinian President for the Christian Affairs.

Fr. Marwan Di’des, Pastor of St. Catherine’s Church of the Nativity, delivered the Message of Peace emphasizing that Bethlehem lies at the ‘Heart of Christmas’. For Christians everywhere, it is the place where the singular moment in Salvation History took place. For non-Christians too, the message of Bethlehem has a ‘beyond borders’, timeless aspect. Its message of reconciliation and peace is universal, touching the deepest hopes and dreams of all nations and peoples. This is the spirit of Bethlehem! Concluding, he expressed the fervent hope that reconciliation, peace and justice will soon prevail in the Holy Land.

Dr. Khouloud Daibes warmly applauded the events as a powerful message of hope to the children of Palestine that future peace is still possible. Likewise, George Saadeh, Deputy Mayor of Bethlehem noted that despite the current difficult situation these events re-enforced how central Bethlehem is to the lives of everyone as the “heart and pride” of Palestine.

Sir Rateb Rabie, HCEF President in his address stated, “The Christmas story originated in Bethlehem. Thus, these days take on special significance. The celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem opens a window for the world to the hopes and dreams of all Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike. While Christmas is a day of deep religious importance to Palestinian Christians, it is also a day of national significance. It re-emphasizes our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and transcends our religious and cultural traditions.”

This year’s Campaign of ‘Bethlehem, the Heart of Christmas’ is being held in partnership with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Latin Parish of Bethlehem, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, One Voice Palestine, and the Bethlehem Chamber of Industry and Commerce.