Contact: Jessica Snyder, HCEF Executive Assistant to the President
(301) 951-9400, ext. 217
On Saturday, January 8, 2005 the second day of the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, HCEF organized a special program for children "A Journey to Bethlehem" where buses filled with gleaming children pulled into the Salesian of Bethlehem schoolyard. This journey was undertaken as part of "Jesus Loves the Children" Christmas Gifts Program. HCEF brought 1000 children, aged 9 to 11, representing 52 churches – Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic – from thirteen Christian villages and towns around Palestine. Each village and town had specifically-colored hats, flags, and scarves, and they carried olive branches and banners with Biblical quotes about peace and justice.
The event was organized with the special intention of bringing children who had never been able to reach Bethlehem because of the occupation and the grueling conditions of travel restriction since the Palestinian Intifada began in 2000. Some of the children, particularly those from the more distant areas like Nablus, Zababdeh, Ramallah and the surrounding villages like Aboud and Birzeit, were celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem for the first time.
As the celebration began in the courtyard of Salesian School, Sonia Ghanem, HCEF’s Operations Manager in Palestine, led the children in song and dance. She was soon a superstar, leading the children, teachers and volunteers in a "shuk-shuk-shuk, ala ran-ran-ran, ala shuk, ala ran, ala Shukran!" According to Ms. Ghanem, they were saying "shukran," Arabic for "thank you," "for all who made it possible for the children to be here all together, particularly the sponsors, HCEF's president, the Board members, and most especially to God, who let the sun shine on Palestine on the day where weather reports had predicted rain." A procession followed, symbolically led by Sir Rateb Rabie, KHS (HCEF President) and HG Archbishop Patrick Kelly (Vice-President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales; HCEF Advisory Board member). The procession included the clergy and children representing the participating parishes of the Orthodox, Latin (Catholic) and Protestant churches.
During the procession to the Church of the Nativity, the group passed through the ancient narrow cobblestone alleys of Bethlehem, with Christmas songs and music in praise of the birth of our Savior, in addition to songs appealing to God for peace. The youth from each school carried scriptural quotes printed on banners proclaiming such things as, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9) and "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body" (Colossians 3:15). The children carried olive branches as a sign of peace. "Onlookers wore perplexed looks and smiles on their faces," reported Mr. George Ghattas, HCEF's Country Representative in Palestine. Mr. Ghattas said that people observing the procession came to him to say, "The joy of Christmas has returned to the birth place of the Prince of Peace thanks to HCEF!"
As the children arrived at the Church of the Nativity, there were few pilgrims to be found other than the HCEF pilgrims who came in a fact finding mission, led by Gail Freeman, HCEF Living Stones Pilgrimage Coordinator. The majority of pilgrims have ceased to visit the Holy Land because they are afraid of the ongoing violence in the region. There were many EU members and journalists, however, who had come to the Holy Land as observers to the first Palestinian elections in years. They, too, shared in the event.
As children arrived, they were led in small groups along guided tours of the Nativity church, and all joined together in the main sanctuary, St Catherine Church. There, they sang Christmas songs and were addressed by His Grace Archbishop Kelly. He shared with them his desire for peace in the Holy Land and received much applause for his promise of a "Journey to Jerusalem", on the occasion of Christ's Resurrection, Easter. HCEF is organizing this Journey to Jerusalem to fulfill Jesus' request, "Let the children come to me."
As the church began to empty, Palestinian policemen congregated around the exit, smiling out of joy for seeing pilgrims again. "Before," said a Palestinian policeman guarding the Basilica of the Nativity, "people used to wait over one hour to get into the Nativity Church. Now, nobody comes. It's always empty. Please tell your people that it is safe to come back to Bethlehem and visit us."
After the liturgical celebration, HCEF hosted a lunch for all participants at the Franciscans' Terra Santa College High School yard. HCEF distributed Christmas gifts to the children with the help of HCEF pilgrims and local clergy. These gifts were in addition to the 4,000 gifts that had already been distributed by HCEF directly to children through the Christian schools. It was emphasized that the gifts were symbolic of the gift of eternal life and light that was given when Jesus was born. The children were asked to bring the hope of Christmas back home to their families all across the Holy Land.
HCEF would like to express its gratitude to the Christians of USA, Italy, and England who gave donations to make this event possible and to all the churches who supported and sponsored this event. Special thanks to St. Andrew parish in Milford, Ohio, represented by its pastor, Fr. Robert Waller, who co-sponsored this event and was part of it. HCEF also extends special thanks to HCEF staff and volunteers worldwide and to Tracy McClure, a reporter with Vatican Radio, who helped to make this event a great success.
Photos of the event will be posted momentarily