Archbishop of Canterbury to make 12-day visit to Holy Land

Harriet Sherwood reports in the Guardian of 23 March 2017

The archbishop of Canterbury is to make a high-level 12-day visit to the Holy Land in May, focusing on religious freedom and the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.

It will be Justin 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.

In May, he will cross the imposing separation barrier 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.

Lambeth Palace said Welby’s central priority on the trip was to affirm the Christian community in the Holy Land, to support and encourage the work of the Anglican St George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem and to identify challenges regarding religious freedom in the region.

He hopes to separately meet Israeli and Palestinian politicians, including the respective presidents, Reuven Rivlin and Mahmoud Abbas. Meetings are also being sought with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and veteran PLO negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, who is an Anglican.

The visit is scheduled a month before the 50th anniversary of the six-day war, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and six months before the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the British statement of support for the creation of a Jewish state in what was Palestine.

On arrival in Jerusalem, Welby is to be installed as episcopal canon at St George’s Cathedral in an ecumenical ceremony.

The trip will also include visits to holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Galilee, as well as Bethlehem. He will visit growing Christian communities in Haifa and Acre in northern Israel, cities which have significant Israeli-Arab populations. A visit to a kibbutz with British connections is also on his schedule, and he will meet the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The archbishop plans to host interfaith events in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and on his final day will deliver a major speech on the theme of reconciliation.

Welby’s visit will start in Amman, where he will visit at least one Syrian refugee camp, and he hopes to meet King Abdullah of Jordan before crossing the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank and Israel.

The visit is one of the longest foreign trips the archbishop has undertaken, or will undertake, according to Lambeth Palace. Welby had expressed a desire for a significant visit to the Holy Land for some time and had a long-standing invitation from the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, it said.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been stalled since efforts by the former US secretary of state John Kerry to bridge the gaps between the two sides broke down almost three years ago.

During his election campaign, Donald Trump pledged to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move which would be likely to inflame tensions. His choice of David Friedman, a vocal supporter of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as US Ambassador   to Israel has also alarmed supporters of a two-state solution.

• This article was amended on 23 March 2017 to clarify that the separation barrier cuts Bethlehem and adjacent villages off from Jerusalem by partly running beside them not by almost encircling them.