Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is this Christmas encircled by towering walls and militarized fences, turning the 4,000 year old city into a virtual prison for its 160,000 citizens. Bethlehem will soon have only three gates to the outside world, all controlled by the Israeli army. This year there's a new message from Bethlehem; the Mayor of Bethlehem, Mayor Batarseh, came to London last week and described Bethlehem as a city dying under economic, political and social oppression. The presidents of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland have listened to the message and are encouraging Christians in Britain and Ireland to visit in solidarity with the dwindling Christian population. They pray for 'a time not far off when the only true and just peace that comes from the breaking down of barriers and the opening of doors will be found between Israel and the Palestinians'. The presidents of the ecumenical body which brings together Churches of across the spectrum of denominations including Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Reformed and Pentecostal traditions, sent a message of solidarity to people of Bethlehem: The text reads: As Presidents of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland we wish, in the approach to Christmas, to convey our support for the people of Bethlehem and particularly for the aims and work of the Open Bethlehem Project, based at Bethlehem University and working hand-in-hand with all Bethlehem's civil institutions. The short road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem has always been the great high road of the Christian faith, linking as it does the cities of Our Lord's birth and resurrection. It has been trodden by countless millions of pilgrims in the last 2,000 years. Nearly 70,000 UK tourists visited Bethlehem in 2000. Last year there were fewer than 3,000. We are dismayed that the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is now closed to the great majority of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, and passable only with much inconvenience and expenditure of time by pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. We view this closure and the barrier being built around Bethlehem as a grave injustice to its people, a serious threat to its economic life and social fabric, and an affront to all Christians. We urge members of CTBI Churches and others to show their support for the people of Bethlehem by visiting and experiencing the hospitality that Bethlehem has offered through the centuries and to take every opportunity to buy and enjoy the products of the craftsmanship of its people. We pray for a time not far off when the only true and just peace that comes from the breaking down of barriers and the opening of doors will be found between Israel and the Palestinians, and trust that the Churches in these islands will contribute what they can to secure this end. For more information on the Open Bethlehem Project see www.openbethlehem.org The presidents of CTBI are: The Most Revd Mario Conti (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow), Revd David Kerr (Methodist Superintendent of the Belfast Central Mission), Revd Nezlin Sterling (New Testament Assembly), Sister Eluned Williams (former President of Methodism in Wales).
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