Archbishop voices Palestinian solidarity at Bethlehem

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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, prayed yesterday at the site identified as Jesus's birthplace.

As the archbishops arrived in Bethlehem on a four-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land with two other British church leaders, Dr Williams indicated the clerics also wanted to express solidarity with the sufferings of Palestinians in the city after the latest six years of conflict.

He said: "We are here to say that the sufferings of the people here are ours too. We want to share them, we want to do what we can to alleviate them, and we hope to see a Bethlehem that is open for all pilgrims."

Although Israeli Arabs and Palestinians - including Christians - face severe restrictions for much of the year in visiting Bethlehem, Israel says it is, like last year, easing them during Christmas. Israel says 18,000 pilgrims are expected in Bethlehem this year.

The delegation walked through the main checkpoint separating the city from Jerusalem yesterday, and saw the separation barrier - which in Bethlehem is a nine-metre concrete wall - enclosing it.

Dr Victor Batarseh, Bethlehem's Roman Catholic mayor, says that the barrier has turned Bethlehem into a "prison" and contributed to a steep fall in tourist and pilgrim trade, as well as an already growing exodus of many Christian families from the town.

Defending the barrier, Israel argues that half of all Israeli civilian deaths in 2004 were caused by Palestinian suicide bombers coming from Bethlehem.

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