On the morning of Friday 24th January, the city of Bethlehem welcomed the visit of Charles, the Prince of Wales, who visited the Basilica of the Nativity. There were three main moments: the ecumenical prayer in the Greek Orthodox Chapel of St. George, the visit to the Grotto of the Nativity and St. Catherine and the reception afterward at Casa Nova Palace.
Following the event in December 2018 at Westminster Abbey, when Prince Charles welcomed the leaders of the Middle Eastern churches for a moment of prayer, the visit began with an ecumenical service in St George’s Chapel, to celebrate the contribution of the Christians in the Middle East. The leaders of the Churches and the Prince of Wales again prayed together so that the Christian communities can continue their work and can continue to flourish despite all the difficulties.
Several religious leaders were present at the prayer who alternated, with songs and praise, leading the brief moment of invocation, They included the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, Mons. PierbattistaPizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III, the Greek-Orthodox Superior of the Church of the Nativity, His Eminence Archbishop Theofylakos, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Anba Antonius, the Bishop Emeritus of Liverpool, Father James Jones, the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Father Sami Ibrahim Azar, the Greek Melkite Patriarch, Archbishop Yaser Ayyash, and the Minister of St Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, John McCulloch.
The Chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate, Father Koryoun Baghdasaryan and the Director of the Magnificat Institute, Fr. AlbertoPari, sang two typical songs of the two Christian denominations.
The Anglican archbishop, Suheil Dawani, started the ceremony of the light by lighting everyone’s candles as a sign of peace, while the Patriarch of the SyriacExarchy in Jerusalem, Father EphremSemaanand the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, FatherBoulosKhanosang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.
The prayer meeting was opened by the Anglican BishopDawani, who stressed the difficulty of being Christian, especially in these places where there is less and less of a Christian presence. "The Churches of the Holy Land,” said Dawani, “work hard to live together and promote respect and good relations between the operators of peace, as can be supposed from the numerous and attentive presence on this occasion.” This feeling was confirmed by Theophilus III who, in his brief speech, quoted the crucial importance of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, as well as the importance of foreign support and in particular from the United Kingdom.
At the end of this first moment, Prince Charles was accompanied by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, to the Grotto of the Nativity and the Manger, where the Virgin Mary laid the Child Jesus. After having received from the Custos of the Holy Land a gift of a work in olivewood and mother-of-pearl illustrating the meeting between St Francis and the Sultan, His Royal Highness remained for a few minutes in prayer before the Manger, invoking, in particular, the gift of peace from the Prince of Peace who was born in Bethlehem.
When he came out of the Grotto of the Nativity, he greeted the Armenian community, welcomed by the Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, who explained the historical presence of the Armenian community and the sufferings over the past centuries.
Accompanied by the Custos of the Holy Land, Prince Charles then continued his visit, going towards the adjacent Church of St Catherine ad Nativitatem, where the Franciscan friars welcomed the Prince around the Relic of the Holy Cradle which was recently brought to this church.
After the usual photo in St. Jerome’s cloister, everybody present went to Casa Nova Palace for a brief reception in the presence of some British diplomats and citizens who live in the Holy Land.
"I am greatly moved by the enthusiasm with which I was welcomed,” said Prince Charles during the reception "and I am also delighted to follow in the wake of pilgrims who comes to the Holy Land from all over the world." The Prince of Wales, in his speech, paid great attention to the challenges of the Christians in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in general, and of the local Palestinian Christians. As in the past, on this day he again expressed how he shared in the difficult situations faced by many communities, and his support for the most exposed communities. "My time here has been short, I hope to be able to return, “inshallah” (God willing) for a complete pilgrimage in the steps of Our Lord, concluded the Prince.
Fr. John-Luke Gregory, a friar of the Custody of the Holy Land and the British English-language Discreet, commented on the visit as follows. "Prince Charles has always had help for people close to his heart. In the same way, coming here and interfacing with the people who live in Palestine moved him. This is why many British organizations try to help the local people, without any political interest. Today, receiving his support through his being here in flesh and blood as well is, I believe, really very important." Fr. Gregory also gave us a brief recollection of the visit by Prince William to the Holy Sepulchre two years ago: "I guided him and I have excellent memories of that day. Prince William was kind, simple and attentive to people. Exactly like his father today. This has made an impression on me and, I have to say, I am very pleased."