Ladies and Gentlemen,
سيداتي و سادتي السلام عليكم و أهلًاو سهلاً و شكراً لحضوركم
Translation: Ladies and Gentlemen, Greetings, welcome and thank you for your presence.
I must say for most of my life – and as someone brought up on the biblical stories of the Holy land, to be with you here, in Bethlehem, means more to me than you can ever know! Therefore, to receive President Abbas’s kind invitation to make what is my first official visit here was greatly appreciated. And I need hardly say that I have been enormously touched by the welcome from Her Excellency Rula Maayah on behalf of the President, from the Governor, the Mayor and the Owkaf, and from everyone I have met. It has also been the greatest pleasure to talk to so many of you here, and to learn about your work on education, medicine and helping refugees. Today I have been tremendously struck by the energy, warmth and remarkable generosity of the Palestinian people.
And I am particularly grateful to His Beatitude Theophilos, His Beatitude Archbishop Manougian and His Eminence Father Francesco, for their warm welcome to the birthplace of our Lord, and for the unprecedented service we have just had in the Chapel of St. George.
It is, if I may say so, humbling and profoundly moving to have taken my place in the long line of pilgrims who have journeyed to this special place of such great significance.
Bethlehem is a part of us all, and the Church of the Nativity is at the heart of Bethlehem. It was especially important to me to give thanks for Christian unity, which we see in the sharing of this sacred space and in the way the different Palestinian Christian communities, so deeply rooted in this land, continue to live side-by-side. You are the ‘living stones’ to which St. Peter first referred. And I need hardly say that it would be the greatest tragedy if those “living stones” were to disappear from the Holy Land after these past millennia.
For me, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is remarkable to think that there were already Christians here when the first Church of the Nativity was built by Constantine the Great. And, that since Umar Ibn Al-Khattab came in the seventh century, Christians and Muslims have lived together in the streets and the countryside surrounding this Church.
It was a special privilege, therefore, to visit the Mosque of Omar this morning and to acknowledge the vital co-existence between Christians and Muslims which Bethlehem so marvellously embodies. That today’s service should happen alongside Friday Prayers is particularly symbolic - as friends in Faith we each in our own tradition call upon God to have mercy on His world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, tragically, the peoples of all three great Abrahamic religions also share the common experience of suffering and displacement, in this land and elsewhere. Throughout my life, I have tried, in whatever very small way I can, to foster greater understanding between people of different faiths, to heal divisions and to remind people of so much that we share in common as opposed to what divides us. Indeed, as it says in Psalm 133 “behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”.
In the United Kingdom, I have long sought to celebrate the rich diversity of belief which we enjoy; and to ensure that people of all faiths, and none, understand how much their place in our society is valued. Elsewhere in the World, too, I have endeavoured to build bridges between different religions, so that we might learn from each other and be stronger together as a result.
It breaks my heart, therefore, that we should continue to see so much suffering and division. No one arriving in Bethlehem today could miss the signs of continued hardship and the situation you face, and I can only join you, and all communities, in your prayers for a just and lasting peace. We must pursue this cause with faith and determination, striving to heal the wounds which have caused such pain. It is my dearest wish that the future will bring freedom, justice and equality to all Palestinians, enabling you to thrive and to prosper.
Ladies and Gentlemen, His Eminence Theofylakos read to us earlier from the Sermon on the Mount, which shows the path that we must all follow. After the Beatitudes Our Lord added, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” Let us take this as our guide, and let us ensure that our light shines before each other in the days and months ahead.
It is a great regret that my time here has been all too short and I pray that one day I shall be able to return, - Insha’Allah - and to make a fuller pilgrimage in the footsteps of our Lord. Until then, I can only thank you again Ladies and Gentlemen for the warmth of the welcome I have received here and to say how much all the people of the Holy Land will remain in my thoughts and special prayers.
شكراً لاستقبالي في بيت لحم
Translation: Thank you for my welcome to Bethlehem.