Bethlehem: A pilgrimage in faith and suffering
by Fabio Arcilla*

A Colombian missionary, on his return from Bangladesh, wished to visit the Holy Land as a pilgrim. Here is his brief reflection.

Rome (AsiaNews) – I returned a short while ago from a pilgrimage in Israel and Palestine. I consider my pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a gift and a blessing for my life. It is truly moving to see the places where the Jesus I preach lived: it is something which all Christians should do at least once in a lifetime.

Of all the holy places, I was especially struck by my visit to Bethlehem in the period nearing Christmas. I met a Christian community which is truly alive there.

Participation in the mass in Bethlehem was very warm and so beautiful. People were all united and taking part, every detail of the liturgy was seen to. The great witness of the Franciscan fathers can be taken in here: all the Franciscan sites are looked after, perfect, in order and clean… one cannot say the same about other holy sites tended to by other Christian communities.

Another beautiful experience was a visit to the children's hospital in Bethlehem. We found children aged between two and five weeks who had been abandoned because their parents had fled or been killed in the war. The sisters take care of all of them with great love.

But going to Bethlehem is also a journey into suffering. The wounds of the Israeli-Palestinian problem are starkly visible on arrival: the wall which surrounds and suffocates the city is indescribably sad. Bethlehem is a sort of prison: only a handful of people are in sight, people asking for handouts, begging because they are hungry… Everything speaks of neglect and of misery: half-finished buildings, rubbish on the sides of the streets, insecurity, tension, anxiety among the people.

Because of the wall, few pilgrims stay overnight in Bethlehem: there are too many difficulties on the journey and too many fears. All Christians should help the people living in Bethlehem, otherwise they will leave and this holy place will lose its Christian community.

The sadness was enhanced by my experience of mission in Bangladesh. The reality I saw in the Ganges Delta is different to the Israeli-Palestinian one.

In the seventies, Bangladesh was torn apart by war and partitioned from Pakistan, but at the end of the day, the two States have reached a state of peaceful coexistence. Here, however, in the "House of Bread" (the meaning of Bethlehem in Aramaic), of brotherhood, there is always and only war and tension.

Nonetheless, every Christian should go to the Holy Land, both for spiritual insight and to help the population economically through tourism. It is also useful to understand the situation more and perhaps to give a hand in seeking to resolve it.


*Fr Fabio Arcilla , 55 years, a Colombian priest from the diocese of Sonsòn Rio Negro (Colombia), was linked with PIME for five years as a missionary in Bangladesh. At the end of his overseas mission, before returning home, he wished to go as a pilgrim to the Holy Land.

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