The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has concluded his longest pastoral visit to a diocese outside the Church of England by praising the Archbishop of Jerusalem's "bridge-building" work between Israelis and Palestinians.
Archbishop Justin's 11-day "pastoral pilgrimage" was designed to provide an opportunity for him to hear from beleaguered Christians in the Middle East and to witness the Diocese of Jerusalem's work in the area of reconciliation.
Archbishop Justin Welby & Archbishop of Jerusalem Suheil-Dawani in the Old City.
The diocese, in the province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Archbishop Justin began his visit in Jordan, where King Abdullah assured him that the country would continue to speak out for the presence of Christians in the region. After that meeting, Archbishop Justin asserted that Christians "are the past in the Middle East, they are the present, and they must be the future."
During the following days he visited the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, the two Anglican hospitals in Gaza and beleaguered communities in the West Bank - including the divided city of Hebron. He met the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders.
Archbishop Justin stressed that he was not there to "lay down the law" to local politicians, saying it would be "daft" for outsiders not to be careful about what they said. He repeatedly recited a phrase that he had heard during his visit: "If you come to the Holy Land for two weeks, you think you understand the situation. If you come for two years, you understand that you know nothing about the situation."
But that did not stop him from raising the plight of Palestinian Christians in particular and the wider problems for Christians in the region - including those who fled the advance of Daesh in Iraq and Syria and who felt that the refugee camps were unsafe areas for them to be. Following his meeting with the political leaders, Archbishop Justin said that he was optimistic that next week's visit of US President Donald Trump to the region could have "surprising" results in kick-starting the moribund peace process.
"I believe the Archbishop's visit to the area was a very successful one" the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, told ACNS at the end of the visit. He said that Archbishop Justin's affirmation of the Christian presence in the region carried a very "spiritual" message and he was encouraged by the Archbishop's "push for the future" to continue the work that the diocese was doing in reconciliation, education and healthcare.
Archbishop Justin Welby with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
In an interview, Archbishop Justin praised the work of the Anglican Diocese in Jerusalem, under the leadership of "one of our great archbishops, Suheil Dawani." He recognised that Anglicanism in the region was a minority group within the already-minority Christian community but said that this did not prevent the diocese from undertaking a significant ministry.
"There are a number of things that lead [the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem] to doing some quite important work," Archbishop Justin said. "Firstly, they have a very clear focus: reconciliation, education, health - and they are not afraid to take risks. They understand the role of Jerusalem as the great gathering point of Christians, perhaps more than anywhere else and they are incredibly hospitable. Archbishop Suheil is brilliant about not feeling threatened by groups but holding out his arms and welcoming everybody. And I think that is marvellous. It is a church that, because it is linked to a global communion, has a louder voice than its local presence would imply” he said. “And those three things, together with the personal gifts that [Archbishop Suheil] brings, and many of his clergy bring, mean that - as in many provinces around the world - the Anglican church is a bridge-builder. A quiet, helpful presence. It is very striking how in all the meetings we have had, how warmly [Archbishop Suheil] was welcomed by all the politicians from both the Israeli and Palestinian communities."
When he arrived in Israel, Archbishop Justin was accompanied by the UK's Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. The two of them prayed together at the Western Wall, standing side-by-side, in a move that Archbishop Justin described as "unprecedented." Throughout his visit, Archbishop Justin also met other Christian leaders in the region, including at Qasr el Yahud, the traditionally accepted site of Jesus' baptism, where he and a number of different Orthodox leaders received a briefing from members of the Halo Trust on their efforts to de-mine the West Bank area and release eight abandoned booby-trapped churches for re-use as worshipping centres.
There are no Anglican churches amongst the eight, but Archbishop Justin, a patron of the Halo Trust, has made a donation from the Archbishop of Canterbury's discretionary funds to support the de-mining operation. Archbishop Justin encouraged more Christians to visit the Holy Land, saying a pilgrimage to the area provided "the most marvellous opportunity for reflection on the common truths that all Christians hold that bring us before the face of Christ."
Archbishop Justin Welby with Orthodox Leaders
"It is not simply the dramatic, the grand; it is not simply looking at the views at which He looked in the Galilee. It is the reality of the incarnation, that God walked about in this place and you could have bumped into him at the right time," he said, "that he took on humanity - the full humanity without anything missing - and that is extraordinary" he said.
"I come here because you meet the whole range of world Christianity here in micro. And it is the most extraordinary experience of seeing things and thinking 'I don't even begin to understand what is going on here', and then, as you listen to people, as you, if you are willing to, put aside your pre-conceptions, and listen to what they say about Christ, you think "the God who we worship in Jesus Christ is so infinitely bigger, and greater, and more astonishing and more wonderful than I ever realised."