Children visit Bethlehem (image from HCEF)

On Friday, December 16th, 350 children from around Palestine visited Bethlehem’s holy sites to learn first-hand about Palestine’s living Christian heritage. The event was part of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s 12th Annual “Journey to Bethlehem.” For the majority of these children, this represents the first time they have ever set foot in these holy places. Children came from schools and orphanages around Zababdeh, Jenin, Tulkarem, Jericho, and Birzeit.

During their journey, the children received educational tours of Shepherds Field, the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, and Bethlehem Museum, where they learned about the role that everyday Palestinians have played in preserving Christianity in the Holy Land. After visiting the sites, the children reflected on their favorite things:

“We loved visiting the Church of the Nativity! We saw the priests give mass for the first time ever. It was really cool!” – Alisa, 8 years, JerichoChildren visiting Bethlehem (HCEF image)

“We enjoyed the museum, especially seeing the solidarity cross because the word ‘peace’ was written on it. We hope that there will be peace for us soon.” – Dala, 8 years, Jericho

“I loved the Christmas tree because its was so beautiful! I loved seeing Bethlehem!” – Hala, 12 years, Jenin

“Today I learned a lot, that we should love each other and pray for others.” – Zaed, 9 years, Birzeit

Children visiting Bethlehem (HCEF image)After their tour, the children joined in with local families to participate in a Christmas celebration at Catholic Action Community Center, where they enjoyed face painting, games, and treats followed by an interactive Christmas play. After receiving a gift from Santa, the group of 400 strong processed down Star Street to Manger Square—down the very path that Christians believe the Holy Family took over 2000 years ago! The procession was met with fanfare, as community members lined the streets, enjoying the singing and laughter of the children.

According to organizers, the procession commemorates Jesus’ call to “follow the children, ” and serves as an important reminder to the community that our children are our future, and that it is our responsibility to educate them about their history, heritage and identity.

The event was sponsored by World Vision International, Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, Caritas Jerusalem, and by individuals from around the world who donated through HCEF’s 2016 Giving Tuesday campaign.

The Regional Director of Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Anthony Habash, said the procession carried the message of peace and hope to the entire world, and delivers a message that the children of Palestine, just like all other children, deserve to live in dignity, justice and peace.

He added that the children in this procession, who came from different parts of the West Bank, are Christians and Muslims, and delivered a message or brotherhood and peace, the message of Christmas in the holy city of Bethlehem.

Habash expressed his hope that such activities will build help break in restrictions and barriers imposed by the Israeli occupation army in Palestine.

For his part, Kayed Boulos, vice-president of Terra Sancta School in Jericho, said he came to Bethlehem in a procession of peace, to introduce the children to the birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, and to introduce them to its historic and religious importance.

Samer Sharqawi, the head of Ta’ayush grassroots movement, said the visit and this activity aims at introducing the children of Palestine to Bethlehem, and its significance.

Sharqawi added that Palestine is the land of coexistence and dialogue, and sets an historic example of love and brotherhood, and that the children, who came from Tulkarem, Jenin, Jericho, Nablus and Bethlehem, got this great opportunity to learn about Bethlehem, and to learn about all holy sites in their homeland.

Sister Mariam Ba’abish of the Rosemary School said there are many children who do not know the importance of all holy sites in Palestine, and that this activity was a great opportunity for them to meet and learn.