Christmas is time to remember the poor, says Williams

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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury reminded worshippers yesterday of their duty to be charitable in a Christmas message which drew heavily on the suffering he witnessed on his recent Advent pilgrimage to the Middle East.

He said he had been inspired by the message of a doctor at a hospital in the divided West Bank which relied on donations to relieve the terrible suffering of its patients.

Dr Rowan Williams said: "What stuck in my mind were comments made by the medical director (who) said 'the poorest deserve the best'. They do not deserve what's left over when the more prosperous have had their fill, or what can be patched together on a minimal budget as some sort of damage limitation. They deserve it simply because their need is what it is and because where human dignity is least obvious, it's most important to make a fuss about it. And - to put it as plainly as possible - this is probably the most radically unique and new thing Christmas itself brings into the world."

The Archbishop took part in an Advent pilgrimage to the Holy Land last week with three other prominent clerics - including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales - aimed at showing solidarity with Christians in the region. During a trip to Bethlehem, Dr Williams said the Israeli-built security wall around the town, in which Christians believe Jesus was born, symbolised what was "deeply wrong in the human heart".

Dr Williams revisited the theme in his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral's Christmas Day service yesterday morning.

He said: "The tragedies of the Holy Land are not the problems of exotic barbarians far away; they are signs of the underlying tragedies that cripple all human life, individual and collective.

"Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in and that will change us in ways we did not choose or want.

"Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. Whether we are thinking of security barriers, Trident missiles or simply the tactics we use as individuals to keep each other at a safe distance, the same shadow appears. Defences do something terrible to us as well as to our real and imagined enemies."

He urged people to remain in touch with both sides in the Holy Land by going to see the situation for themselves. "Go and see, go and listen; let them know, Israelis and Palestinians alike, that they will be heard and not forgotten.

"Both communities in their different ways dread - with good reason - a future in which they will be allowed to disappear while the world looks elsewhere. The beginning of some confidence in the possibility of a future is the assurance that there are enough people in the world committed to not looking away and pretending it isn't happening" he said.

While in the Middle East, Dr Williams clashed with the Government when he claimed in a newspaper article that the "short-sightedness" and "ignorance" of Britain's policies on Iraq were putting Christian communities in the region at risk.

He was swiftly rebuked by the Foreign Office, which said their suffering was caused by the "intolerant extremism" of those opposed to a democratic society.

The other messages

* THE QUEEN

Queen Elizabeth II urged people to bridge the generation gap between the young and old. "There is always the danger of a real divide opening up between young and old, based on unfamiliarity, ignorance or misunderstanding," she said. She also sent a message of multi-faith tolerance. The broadcast featured footage of Muslims praying in London Central Mosque. The Queen said it was easy to focus on the differences between religions rather than what they had in common.

* THE POPE

A solution to conflicts across the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, was urged by Pope Benedict XVI in an address that included an appeal for the poor, the exploited and all those who suffer. He also mentioned violence in Lebanon, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Darfur and the whole of Africa. At the end of his speech, he delivered Christmas greetings in more than 60 languages.

* THE ARCHBISHOP OF YORK

Community cohesion could only be meaningfully achieved if there is an end to talk of multi-culturalism and cultural diversity, warned the Archbishop of York. In his Christmas Day sermon, Dr John Sentamu urged people to come together to "build our dwelling tent together". He added: he said: "The history of this great nation and the experience of two world wars teaches us that nationhood is made of contributions of all and not claims."

* THE ARCHBISHOP OF WESTMINSTER

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster warned that England is undergoing a "truly radical break" with humanity's traditions and urged Christians to visit the Holy Land.

Giving his Midnight Mass homily at Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor told the congregation that England is "a profoundly needy land". He said: "We live in a culture that seeks to express itself as totally self-sufficient, where only what is experienced or what can be calculated is valid; where individual freedom is held as the fundamental value to which all others must be subject."

* CHANNEL 4

The TV channel chose an unidentified Muslim convert wearing a veil in aprovocative version of its "alternative" Christmas message. "Khadijah" rejected claims that the niqab was a sign of separation. She added that remarks by the Leader of the Commons Jack Straw about the veil earlier this year were not helpful to Muslims "trying to live quite peacefully in this society".

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