Over 1000 children from all over Palestine poured into the city, promoting peace and solidarity as they marched along the traditional Pilgrimage Route--the path followed by Joseph and Mary on their journey, and today followed ceremoniously each year by Christian Patriarchs at Christmas-- to the Church of Nativity, which was recognized in 2012 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
For many, this was their first time setting foot in the Church and observing the birthplace of Christ. The children, along with Parish leaders and teachers, first arrived early on Sunday to attend Mass in churches throughout the local Bethlehem area. Afterwards, they gathered together at the Catholic Action Club where they were treated to a show.
Later in the evening, the city of Bethlehem held its Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. With the fresh impression of over 1000 Palestinian children in the city, and the giant Christmas tree now alight in Manger Square, the Christmas season has officially begun. It was an inspiring sight to see children from Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Jericho, Ramallah, Jifna, Birzeit, Ein Arik, Taybeh, Nablus, and the SOS Children's Villages International set off from the Catholic Action Club and take to the old streets of Bethlehem bearing messages of peace, hope, and love for the people of the Palestine and the rest of the world. "Unfortunately," said Sir Rateb Rabie, President/CEO of HCEF, "the children of Gaza could not join in this Christmas celebration, though most Palestinian children in Gaza have never visited the birthplace of our Lord.
Gaza is under even more severe restrictions, and it's inhabitants are confined to Gaza." Nonetheless, HCEF is determined to include the children of Gaza in the celebration of Christmas. On December 14th at 5:30 PM, HCEF will be conducting its Simulcast Christmas Message of Peace at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Washington D.C. and Gaza will be brought together through a simultaneous video feed to share in singing, prayer, and messages of encouragement in the spirit of Christmas. For more information on this special event, click HERE. As this year marks the 10th Anniversary of HCEF's Journey to Bethlehem for Peace, the Journey has firmly secured its place as part of the deep tradition, enabling children to take part in an act whose roots go to the very origins of Christianity itself.
Everyone can see that Christians exist all over Palestine, and that they represent an essential aspect of Palestinian identity. It should also be known that, despite the walls Israel has put up, the city of Bethlehem remains open to everyone who wants to visit and worship at the birthplace Christ the Lord." Eng. Anthony Habash, HCEF's Regional Director said, "Despite the challenges and obstacles we face as Palestinians, with God's help we managed to bring more than 1000 children from parishes and cities throughout Palestine to visit Bethlehem, creating an opportunity for the children to build relationships with one another and experience the spirit of Christmas where it all began." Father Issa Musleh the spokesman of the Orthodox Church said, "The march of the children of Palestine is a message for the whole world to work toward the rights of the oppressed and the removal of injustice represented by Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people."
Along with the Bethlehem Local Youth Council, HCEF is deeply grateful for all of its Bethlehem Heart of Christmas partners: the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Bethlehem Municipality, Catholic Relief Services, St. Catharine Latin Parish - Bethlehem, USAID, Global Communities, OneVoice Palestine, Palestinian News Network (PNN), Inad Theatre, World Vision Jerusalem, Caritas Jerusalem, Good Shepherds Parish - Jericho, Terra Santa and St. Joseph Scout Troops, SOS Children's Villages International, Alofoq Volunteer Organization, Pontifical Mission of Jerusalem, German Association for the Holy Land, Cairo Amman Bank, Bank of Palestine, Al Tawil Company, Al Junedi Company, Golden Bakery, Ika Company, Nissan Souvenir Shop, Catholic Action Club, RAI House of Art, Carpet House, Milano, Divano, , the Youth Councils of Taybeh, Birzeit, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and to the many others who support and share in the vision of HCEF.