The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will make his first official visit to Israel and Palestine this May. The 12 day tour will see the Archbishop meeting with political and religious leaders while focusing on religious freedoms and challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.
The tour will be Welby’s first official visit to the Holy Land since becoming archbishop four years ago, although he made a private visit in 2013 during which he was criticised for not visiting Bethlehem.
The trip is planned to begin in Jordan where the Archbishop will hold talks with King Abdullah, he will then travel to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Bethlehem where he will hear about the challenges posed to Palestinian Christians by the illegal Separation Wall erected by Israel.
While any Jewish person can become not only an Israeli citizen but also a Jerusalem resident by virtue only of their faith, all Palestinian Christians who have been out of Jerusalem for more than seven years and/or acquired a foreign nationality or a residence permit abroad are liable to automatically lose their “permanent residency” in the city of their birth. For Jerusalem’s Christian community, this means, the number of Christians in the city is likely to drop even further.
The Guardian reported that Welby is planning to cross the imposing Separation Wall that Israel has erected to visit the birthplace of Jesus. He plans to meet the Christian Mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, and Palestinian Christians whose homes, land and livelihoods have been affected by the wall that partly runs beside Bethlehem and adjacent villages, cutting them off from Jerusalem.
The Archbishop’s trip to the region will be the most high profile visit by a Christian leader since Pope Francis toured the area in 2014. A year after the tour, the Vatican formally recognized the State of Palestine. The agreement called for moves to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and backed a two-state solution.
The treaty aimed to secure the rights of the Catholic Church on Palestinian territories in exchange for backing the two-state solution, and gives more weight to Palestine politically. Palestinian Christians will expect an equally positive outcome from the tour, once the Archbishop sees the extent of their persecution, especially by Israeli settlers who have torched a number of churches in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Christian population has fallen dramatically since the creation of Israel. Christians make up two per cent of the population of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories – the number used to be around 15 per cent. In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995. While tension across the Middle East is said to be a reason for Christian flight from the “holy land” most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of the Christian community.
The sharp decline in the number of Christian Jerusalemites is the result of the implementation of Israel as a de facto state on this land.
Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the World Council of Churches, said. “The Israeli government policy throughout the whole history has been unilateral: turning Jerusalem both into a Jewish city and into the capital of Israel, while getting rid of all the Christian [and Muslim] Palestinians.”