Archbishop of Canterbury Condemns Israeli Security Wall

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is currently taking part in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, has criticised the Israeli security wall that surrounds Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Speaking to the town's civic representatives shortly after walking through the wall, Dr Williams said the wall symbolised "the terrible fear of the other, of the stranger, which keeps us all in one kind of prison or another", from which God 2,000 years ago came to release people, Open Bethlehem said.

Dr Williams was speaking on behalf of a delegation of UK church leaders to the town of Christ's birth, which includes the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Moderator of the Free Churches, David Coffey, and the Armenian Patriarch of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian.

Accompanied by Christian church leaders from Jerusalem, the delegation made its way through the notorious checkpoint at the entrance to the town. The wall currently prevents the majority of Bethlehem's population from travelling and trading with neighbouring Jerusalem, with the exception of a few who hold special permits.

The delegation walked from the checkpoint down Star St to Manger Square, following the route said to have been made 2,000 years ago by Mary and Joseph.
They were greeted in the square by civic leaders at the International Peace Centre, close to the Basilica of the Nativity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks were in response to a speech by Bethlehem's Mayor, Dr Victor Batarsheh, in which he described how many families have had to face economic hardship or leave Bethlehem since it was cut off from the outside world by the wall. Bethlehem, he said, had been "transformed into an open prison" by the wall.

He told the church leaders that future peace depended on "dialogue, not separation".
"Your presence is challenging this ugly wall," Mayor Batarseh told them.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said they were "here to say to the people of Bethlehem that they are not forgotten".

"We are here to say: what affects you affects us. We are here to say, your suffering is our suffering too, in prayers and in thought and in hope."

He continued: "We are here to say, in this so troubled and complex land, that justice and security are never something which one person claims and the expense of another, or which one community claims at the expense of another. We are here to say that security for one is security for all. And for one to live under the threat of occupation or of terror is a problem for all."

Citing an Advent hymn which sings of "Jesus Christ, the one who comes the prison bars to break", Dr Williams said it was the hope and prayer of the church leaders for all of Bethlehem's population "that the prison of poverty and disadvantage, the prison of fear and anxiety, will alike be broken".

He added that the church leaders had come because the Incarnation "assures us that these prisons could be broken, broken by the act of God in whose sight all are equally precious - Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim; and for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of one is affront to all".

Following the speeches, the Mayor of Bethlehem declared the delegates honorary citizens of Bethlehem.

The delegates then made their way to the Basilica of the Nativity, where they prayed at the spot in a cave said to be where Jesus was born. As well as the Greek Orthodox-controlled Basilica itself, they visited the Catholic church alongside, from where the delegates made their way down to the cave where St Joseph is said to have received the angel's warning to flee Bethlehem. Alongside it is another cave where St Jerome made the first translation of the Bible.

The delegates return Saturday, after a day of prayers and visits in the town of Christ's birth.

The visit by church leaders coincides with the release of surveys in the US and in Bethlehem commissioned by Open Bethlehem.

The surveys show widespread ignorance in the US of Bethlehem and its plight. But the poll, which was carried out by Zogby, also revealed that if Americans knew that the wall had severed Bethlehem and Jerusalem and had led to the large-scale Israeli annexation of (mainly Christian-owned) land, they would oppose the wall.