Archbishop of Canterbury to meet Palestinian and Israeli leaders

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Jerusalem

Image source, Reuters

The Archbishop of Canterbury is to meet Palestinian and Israeli political leaders as part of a 12-day tour of the Holy Land.

His visit comes two weeks before US President Donald Trump is due to arrive in Jerusalem to try to revive the moribund peace process.

However, the Most Reverend Justin Welby indicated there should not be too much significance read into the timing.

"I come to pray, to share, to listen, to encourage," he told the BBC.

"It would be very presumptuous to go further. You cannot, in a place as complicated as this, go and lecture people."

The archbishop will later meet the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has just returned from meeting Mr Trump at the White House.

He will meet the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday.

The archbishop met Jordan's King Abdullah - an important player in peace efforts - during a visit to the country last week.

The head of the Anglican Church stressed that, as well as meeting political figures, he was also speaking to ordinary people caught up in regional conflicts.

In Jordan's vast Zaatari camp, he met refugees who escaped the bloody war in neighbouring Syria.

At a church in Amman, Iraqi Christians told him how they had fled the advances of the so-called Islamic State group and would not return home.

"The statistics of refugees are completely overwhelming," Mr Welby said.

"When you hear the individual stories, you see that behind each statistic is this mountain of pain."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Justin Welby met with Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, during a visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The archbishop has been careful to hear voices from both sides in the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In a previously unannounced move, he visited Gaza - which has seen repeated conflicts between Palestinian militants and Israel in the past decade.

He also met Israelis living under threat of rocket fire from Palestinian militants in a kibbutz near the border.

The archbishop said his time in Gaza was "genuinely breathtaking, something I'll never forget".

He visited two hospitals including one run by the Anglican Church, and led communion in the chapel.

About 1,300 Christians - mostly Greek Orthodox - remain in Gaza, which has a population of nearly 2m. The last Palestinian Anglican left earlier this year.

Lambeth Palace says that a main priority of the trip is to focus on religious freedom and challenges for Christians.

Image caption,
The archbishop presided over holy communion and gave a sermon at St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem

In a sermon on Sunday at St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, the archbishop focused on themes of "suffering and injustice".

"In this region, in addition to the suffering of war, conflict and the tragedies of death and injustice, Christians especially are experiencing persecution, are especially frightened," he told the congregation.

The archbishop has visited Palestinian Christian communities in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, where he prayed and ate falafel with Christian mayor, Vera Baboun.

He was due to meet Christian families in the Cremisan Valley, whose land is affected by the construction of Israel's West Bank barrier.

Interfaith meetings have been another feature.

The archbishop met Israel's two chief rabbis. In Jerusalem, the UK's chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, accompanied him to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Britain's chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, joined the archbishop on a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City

They also toured the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and prayed together by the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites.

A director of the Islamic Waqf, which administers the city's most sacred place for Muslims, took the archbishop around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.

The archbishop is seeing signs of hope for the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Co-operation between different denominations recently enabled long-needed restoration of a shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

On the west bank of the River Jordan, where it is believed Jesus was baptised by John, a British charity hopes to help pilgrims access ancient churches.

The Halo Trust was given permission to remove landmines planted in the area, mostly by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

On the other side of the river, in Jordan, there are plans to build a new Anglican church.

More on this story