Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has preached a powerful sermon in Jerusalem declaring that the presence of Christians is 'essential to the life and hope of this whole area'.
Addressing the Anglican faithful at a packed St George's Cathedral in east Jerusalem, the Archbishop lamented the 'all consuming' suffering felt by the church in the region, where 'Christians especially are experiencing persecution' and 'are especially threatened'.
But in an ultimately uplifting ten minute sermon based on the theme of 'abundant life' promised by Jesus and delivered hours before he was to be installed as an Episcopal Canon at the Anglican Cathedral, Archbishop Welby said: 'The life of Christ changes everything, every aspect of our lives. It is not only in the areas of prayer and worship, not for the internal life of the church only'.
He went on: 'Here in this region is a deep need for healing, for hope, for righteousness of life, and for human dignity in security and without fear. The presence of Christians here both needs...abundant life if the church is to remain, but also is essential to the life and hope of this whole area. We pray for you, grieve for you, hope with you, and will seek in the best ways we can, to support you so that we all share the abundant life of Christ.'
Welby outlined some of the experiences that have most touched him so far during his comprehensive 12-day visit to the Holy Land, a trip that he emphasised was first and foremost pastoral.
'You know the fury of being treated wrongly,' he said. 'Even on a brief visit here, with very little understanding of probably the most complicated region of conflicts in the world, one sees the passions raised by suffering and injustice. Whether it is the utterly disrupted lives of the refugees we met in Zatari refugee camp [in Jordan] last week, or the tears of the Iraqi Christians later that day, seemingly forgotten by the world, one sees endless heart-break.
'In Gaza there is heroism from the doctors at the hospitals, from patients and above all groups of women, but also the ever looming fears. In Nazareth, across Galilee you hear the voices of anger, or of fear and insecurity, of division and of the impact of almost a century of struggle and conflict, that affect every inhabitant of the region, all of who tell their stories of fear, of struggle.'
Welby jointly presided over the Eastertide Communion service at St. George's, which has the appearance of a quiet corner of Kent in the midst of the divided Holy City, with the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, assisted by the Dean Hosam Naoum.
To the sound of the anthem 'Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kingdom,' the Archbishop of Canterbury administered Communion wafers to dozens of Anglicans including Palestinian Christians at the end of the service which was held jointly in Arabic and English.
Before his sermon, he thanked the Bishop and the Dean for allowing him to preach. 'I've been a dean,' he joked. 'I know what a nuisance it is.'
Later, to laughter from the congregation of several hundred Welby presented gifts to Bishop Dawani and Dean Naoum, telling those gathered as he approached the lecturn: 'Don't look so worried – I'm not going to preach another sermon.'
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme after the service, Welby said that his visit to Gaza was 'genuinely breathtaking - something I'll never forget'.
In what appears to be a meticulously balanced trip, the Archbishop has so far visited the refugee camp in Jordan, received a warm welcome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, visited the Dome of the Rock, prayed at the Western Wall with the UK's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis before speaking out against anti-Semitism at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, and made his surprise visit to Gaza.
This evening Welby will be given the honour of being installed as Episcopal Canon at St. George's, in a move aimed at building on Anglican unity, during an Evensong service before attending an ecumenical gathering of church leaders from across Jerusalem.
Tomorrow the Archbishop will travel to Bethlehem and meet with Palestinian Christians including the city's Christian Mayor Vera Baboun who is expected to brief him on the plight of Christians there, whose lives are affected by the imposing separation barrier which cuts through the West Bank and surrounding Israeli settlements. Later this week, he will also visit the West Bank city of Hebron.
In a series of political meetings, Welby is also set to meet the Israeli Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, and is hoping to meet the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.