This Sunday, the 1st of December, Bethlehem kicked off the Christmas Season with HCEF's 10th Annual Journey to Bethlehem for Peace, which was conducted this year with the Bethlehem Local Youth Council. Over 1000 children from all over Palestine poured into the city, promoting peace and solidarity as they marched along the traditional Pilgrimage Route–the path followed by Joseph and Mary on their journey, and today followed ceremoniously each year by Christian Patriarchs at Christmas– to the Church of Nativity, which was recognized in 2012 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. For many, this was their first time setting foot in the Church and observing the birthplace of Christ.
The children, along with Parish leaders and teachers, first arrived early on Sunday to attend Mass in churches throughout the local Bethlehem area. Afterwards, they gathered together at the Catholic Action Club where they were treated to a show. Later in the evening, the city of Bethlehem held its Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
With the fresh impression of over 1000 Palestinian children in the city, and the giant Christmas tree now alight in Manger Square, the Christmas season has officially begun.
It was an inspiring sight to see children from Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Jericho, Ramallah, Jifna, Birzeit, Ein Arik, Taybeh, Nablus, and the SOS Children's Villages International set off from the Catholic Action Club and take to the old streets of Bethlehem bearing messages of peace, hope, and love for the people of the Palestine and the rest of the world. "Unfortunately," said Sir Rateb Rabie, President/CEO of HCEF, "the children of Gaza could not join in this Christmas celebration, though most Palestinian children in Gaza have never visited the birthplace of our Lord. Gaza is under even more severe restrictions, and it's inhabitants are confined to Gaza."
Nonetheless, HCEF is determined to include the children of Gaza in the celebration of Christmas. On December 14th at 5:30 PM, HCEF will be conducting its Simulcast Christmas Message of Peace at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Washington D.C. and Gaza will be brought together through a simultaneous video feed to share in singing, prayer, and messages of encouragement in the spirit of Christmas. For more information on this special event, click HERE.
As this year marks the 10th Anniversary of HCEF's Journey to Bethlehem for Peace, the Journey has firmly secured its place as part of the deep tradition, enabling children to take part in an act whose roots go to the very origins of Christianity itself. To date, HCEF and its partners have been able to bring over 10,000 Palestinian children to the Holy City of Bethlehem, many of them never having been there before due to the restrictions all Palestinians face from ongoing military occupation. Sir Rateb insists that it is imperative: "Jesus' message was clear. He said 'Let the children come to me,' and this message is to every leader, whether religious, civil, or political, whether on the world stage or in the local community. They must never ban children from coming to celebrate Christmas, regardless of any conflict. We pray that 2014 will be a year of peace, harmony & understanding."
In regards to the significance of the Journey to Bethlehem for Peace, Vice Mayor Issam Juha stated, "This program is one of the most important things HCEF and its partners conduct, especially this year as it coincides with the lighting of the Christmas Tree. Everyone can see that Christians exist all over Palestine, and that they represent an essential aspect of Palestinian identity. It should also be known that, despite the walls Israel has put up, the city of Bethlehem remains open to everyone who wants to visit and worship at the birthplace Christ the Lord."
Eng. Anthony Habash, HCEF's Regional Director said,"Despite the challenges and obstacles we face as Palestinians, with God's help we managed to bring more than 1000 children from parishes and cities throughout Palestine to visit Bethlehem, creating an opportunity for the children to build relationships with one another and experience the spirit of Christmas where it all began."
Father Issa Musleh the spokesman of the Orthodox Church said, "The march of the children of Palestine is a message for the whole world to work toward the rights of the oppressed and the removal of injustice represented by Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people."
Samer Makhlouf, General Director of OneVoice Palestine, reflected on his organization's mission during the event, stating, "We have been supporting the Journey to Bethlehem for the last three years, and every year we have a message to share. This year the message and campaign of OneVoice is 'Wake Up.' The campaign's goal is to get the youth of Palestine active in building up their country and promoting a two-state solution through non-violence."
The success of this year's Journey to Bethlehem for Peace is due in no small part to HCEF's many passion-driven partners. This year is particularly special as it marks HCEF's new partnership with the Bethlehem Local Youth Council.
Iyad Handel, Chairman of the local Youth Council in Bethlehem said, "This event, carried out in collaboration with HCEF, is meant to bring focus to the message of Jesus Christ, especially on the day of the Christmas Tree lighting. In fact, the real Christmas decoration comes from the smiles of these beautiful children of Palestine.
The Bethlehem Local Youth Council is committed to helping HCEF conduct this event in the years to come."
As they marched, the children were joined by the St. Joseph and Terra Santa Scout Troops, and led by prominent Palestinian leaders and community members including: Minister Abdel Fatah Hamayel, the Governor of Bethlehem; Vice Mayor, Eng. Issam Juha; Bethlehem City Chief of Police, Major Mohamed Abu Al Rab; Father Issa Musleh, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church, Eng. Anthony Habash, HCEF's Regional Director; Iyad Handel, President of the Bethlehem Local Youth Council; Samer Makhlouf, General Director of OneVoice Palestine; Imad Al Tawil, President of the Tawil Company, Jamileh Aranki, HCEF's Birzeit Representative; Kamal Hazboun, former Scout Leader; Aida Baboun, St. Joseph Scout Leader, and an array of community leaders representative of the Palestinian cities mentioned above.
Along with the Bethlehem Local Youth Council, HCEF is deeply grateful for all of its Bethlehem Heart of Christmas partners: the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Bethlehem Municipality, Catholic Relief Services, St. Catharine Latin Parish – Bethlehem, USAID, Global Communities, OneVoice Palestine, Palestinian News Network (PNN), Inad Theatre, World Vision Jerusalem, Caritas Jerusalem, Good Shepherds Parish – Jericho, Terra Santa and St. Joseph Scout Troops, SOS Children's Villages International, Alofoq Volunteer Organization, Pontifical Mission of Jerusalem, German Association for the Holy Land, Cairo Amman Bank, Bank of Palestine, Al Tawil Company, Al Junedi Company, Golden Bakery, Ika Company, Nissan Souvenir Shop, Catholic Action Club, RAI House of Art, Carpet House, Milano, Divano, , the Youth Councils of Taybeh, Birzeit, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and to the many others who support and share in the vision of HCEF.