The Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth Philip Egan talks about his visit to the Holy Land
I’ve just returned from a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There were 100 of us on the pilgrimage and we travelled round in two buses. We spent three nights in Bethlehem, three in Jerusalem, and three in Tiberias in Galilee.
We had two excellent guides, Ibraham and Rami, who belong to a rare and rapidly vanishing species, namely Palestinian Christians.
As we toured the various holy sites, I also began to sense something of the real tragedy and suffering of the people who live in those parts.
The situation in Israel is tense, with soldiers visible on many streets, a huge security wall separating out the Jewish settlements from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and regular check-points to cross.
It is worth saying there is no reason why pilgrims and tourists should not visit Israel. But we know that relationships between the two dominant communities of Jews and Palestinians are strained. Palestinian Christians seem to be caught in the middle.
It was wonderful to say prayers in the basilica of the nativity in Manger Square Bethlehem and to kiss the very spot where the Lord was born. We also went down the hill to visit one of the shepherds fields where angels appeared to shepherds to announce the good news of Christ’s birth.
This Christmas, let us pray for the troubled communities of the Holy Land, for justice, peace and reconciliation.
Let us hope and pray for some way forward in 2016 to healing and resolving their complex and problematic relationships.
At the same time, this Christmas, we recognise how we all want to be happy in life. The message of Christmas is that what every human being longs for has become visible in a person – Jesus Christ.
Born in poverty in a cave-like stable, He, who is truly God, came to save us, to forgive our sins and to raise us to new life, and to give us the energy to work towards a better world. This is also the message of Pope Francis in this year of mercy.
I wish you, all your families and friends, a blessed and joyful Christmas!