Our final full day in the Holy Land took us back to the West Bank and the 'Little Town of Bethlehem' writes Father Mark Madden. Crossing the checkpoint was very easy and we drove straight to Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity. Bethlehem is still very much in the Christmas atmosphere with the Christians, Orthodox and Armenians all celebrating the Festival on different dates.
The Basilica was very full with people queuing to enter the Grotto to venerate the spot where tradition says the Child was born. Having an Archbishop clad in episcopal regalia certainly helps as we were able to descend to the Grotto by a different route and spend a short few moments in private prayer. It is a powerful moment even when this very small area is full and it can be hard to imagine this being a cave. It's a powerful moment reflecting on the billions of people who have made the same journey to prostrate at the spot and kiss the place where Jesus was born. The Archbishop venerated the place on behalf of everyone in the Archdiocese.
The Archdiocese has many associations with Bethlehem and involvement with the local Christian community. One such place is St Martha's House which St. Joseph's (Stoneycroft) Friends of the Holy Land supports. Saint Martha’s House Care and Repair is a day care centre project for the elderly with a Christian ethos but open to all. Its aim is to serve the elderly that are left without a breadwinner and without care. The Centre extends a compassionate hand of support to isolated elderly women in Bethlehem, to enable them to access services already available and to extend the range of home based care to enhance their quality of life on a daily basis. The centre will not just help support vulnerable elderly people but help make it possible for the younger generation to remain in their ancient homeland by recruiting young women from the area, giving them training in the various support services, and enable them to find meaningful and long term employment at the Centre.
Visiting the Centre is always a huge privilege and highly enjoyable. The ladies and staff once again made us very welcome with singing and dancing, at one stage the Archbishop was waltzing with one of the ladies! Receiving visitors means a lot to them and they showed this in a traditional greeting. They were delighted to see the Archbishop and they presented him with a beautiful picture of St. Martha. After a splendid lunch, Laila Asfoura explained to us the present project of buying a plot of land in order to builds new premises that will better meet the need of a growing list of those under their care. To achieve this they are selling squares of land for £10 and, once complete, a book with the names of all donors will be placed in the House. The Archbishop led the way by buying some squares followed by other members of the group.
St. Joseph's Friends of the Holy Land have recently donated over £6,000 to help towards the cost of a new minibus which is helping the work of the Centre. Laila and the ladies are very grateful for the efforts of many people and it was good that the Liverpool Group were able to use the bus during their time in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem suffers greatly because of the current situation and many have described the town as an open prison and it's easy to see why. The entire town is surrounded by the Separation Wall and we saw a new area of the wall which has completely cut off the community and even families. The wall is a monstrosity and unnecessary as it weaves it's way through Palestinian land destroying houses, land, amenities and important resources as Ancient Olive Groves. It's humbling for visitors to see how locals daly cope with these difficulties and see how they get on with heir daily lives. No visitor to Bethlehem can fail to be moved!
Our last stop on this trip was to Bethlehem University with Mass and dinner with the De La Salle Brothers living and working in the University. The University is located at the highest point in the town of Bethlehem. Beginning with 112 students during its first year in 1973, sixty-three students graduated at the first full graduation ceremony in June 1977 and by January 2012 there are 300 students with 650 graduating in June 2011. The University is a vital resource in this part of Betlehem which serves both the Christian and Muslim population. Despite being closed twelve times by Israeli military imposed orders, the longest of which was for three years from October 1987 until October 1990, classes have continually been held on- and off-campus. The curfews, travel restrictions, military checkpoint harassment, and the negative impact of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, are factors faced by the University’s enrolment of students, most of whom are full time, and most of whom are serving the Palestinian society in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in various professions and leadership positions. The University’s story is one of people committed to pursuing their higher education – perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and injustice – working together in hope with an ever widening international circle of colleagues to build a better future.
After Mass celebrated by the Archbishop and dinner, the Brothers presented the Archbishop with another cake for his Golden Jubilee which has rounded off a very busy, thought-provoking but very enjoyable week. A week when we have experienced the highs and lows of the lives of many people who have taken us into their hearts. Our message to them is that we will always keep them close to us as we prepare to make our way back to Liverpool and beyond.
For the peace of Jerusalem pray.