Leaving Bethlehem this morning after a three-day pilgrimage, the UK's church leaders pledged themselves to continue to be a "voice for the voiceless" on behalf of the beleaguered people of the town. The Rt Revd David Coffey, president of the Churches Together in England, was speaking on behalf of the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, and the Armenian Patriarch of Great Britain, after they received symbolic Bethlehem passports. The passports are an initiative of Open Bethlehem, a campaign which began in 2005 to draw the world,s attention to the plight of the town, which is in economic meltdown following the construction of a 30-foot-high wall by the Israeli army. The Israeli measures imposed since 2000 have led to a catastrophic decline in the number of pilgrimages to the town, on which its economy depends. According to a 2004 UN report unemployment and poverty have caused more than 400 Christian families to leave Bethlehem in search of livelihoods abroad. Shortly after walking through the checkpoint on Thursday, a visibly shocked Archbishop of Canterbury said the wall symbolized "all that is wrong in the human heart". "Your visit reassures us that we are not forgotten," Leila Sansour, Open Bethlehem,s chief executive, told the four pilgrims. She said the passports signalled "our hope that you will continue to be ambassadors for Bethlehem after you return home. She asked that "whenever you travel you will speak about Bethlehem and remember us, a people who long to travel in dignity and freedom." There has so far been only one passport given: Pope Benedict XVI received the Bethlehem passport in December 2005 from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. "We are fortunate to have such distinguished ambassadors to speak for us," Sansour said. The passport asks the bearer to "remain a true friend to Bethlehem through its imprisonment and that he or she will "strive to keep the ideals of Bethlehem alive as long as the wall stands." Mr Coffey in turn presented Leila Sansour with a Christmas card signed by hundreds of people in Durham, in north-east England. The card shows Mary and Joseph approaching Bethlehem but finding the town imprisoned behind a wall. 'We support your struggle for peace with justice' - were the words on the inside of the card. The Open Bethlehem delegation included a representative of the Governor of Bethlehem, as well as the coordinator of a network of Christian organizations in Bethlehem and a representative of the World Council of Churches. The church leaders spent yesterday visiting Christian and humanitarian projects in Bethlehem, including Bethlehem University (where 70 per cent of the students are Muslim), the Holy Family hospital and the Arab Rehabilitation Society, a hospital for the disabled. At the university, the church leaders received from the students a piece of a demolished house belonging to the family of one of the students, as well as a candle and a handpainted tile. Rather than hand over the stone from the demolished house to his advisers, Dr Williams kept hold of it throughout his visit to the university. The students spoke of life under occupation, the sense of imprisonment, and their anxieties about their future. Text of Leila Sansour's address: "Your Grace, Your Eminence, Your Beatitude, Reverend Coffey: As you end your pilgrimage to our city, my friends and I from Bethlehem,s civil institutions wish to send you on your way with our most heartfelt regards. Your visit was timely, not only because it is Christmas, the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But also because our city today is very isolated. Your visit reassures us that we are not forgotten. On Thursday the Mayor of Bethlehem awarded you the freedom of our city. Today, on behalf of the Governor of Bethlehem, I would like to present you with a Bethlehem passport to signal our hope that you will continue to be ambassadors for Bethlehem after you return home, and that whenever you travel you will speak about Bethlehem and remember us, a people who also long to travel in dignity and freedom. This passport has so far only been given to one, very distinguished person His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who received it from our president, Mahmoud Abbas. We are fortunate indeed to have such distinguished ambassadors to speak for us. The passport is an initiative of Open Bethlehem, a campaign to keep Bethlehem free and open. The presence of the four of you here has brought these aims closer. From the bottom of our hearts we thank you for your time, dedication and prayers. We thank you for the warm bonds with the people of Britain which it will help to forge; and we thank you for bringing closer the peace and justice for which we all long." Text of response by Rt Revd David Coffey: "I know I speak for all the pilgrims when I say your words were very moving. Each day we have been given treasures, and this is a very special treasure that we take away with us. We bring something very modest in return but nonetheless very meaningful to us. There are many towns and communities who have pledged their support for Bethlehem. This says: 'Christmas greetings from the people of Durham to the people of Bethlehem'. It says we support your struggle for peace with justice; it carries the names and addresses of people who have signed it. What we have found here in Bethlehem is a people with identity, a people with a story. And although we don,t know the stories of all these people, they are real people, and they say they support you. As we return, we do pledge to continue to be a voice for the voiceless and we will continue with stand you in prayer at the end of our pilgrimage." Source: Open Bethlehem/ACN
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