My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Pilgrimage on a Bus called Hope to the Holy Land contd.

We have spent an emotionally charged morning with the orphans and other needy children at Jeel al- Amal (Generation of Hope) School and Boys Home in the village of Bethany, followed by a Eucharist celebrated with all the pilgrims from our three buses, the buses called Faith, Hope and Love (see previous post). We are therefore spiritually nourished but ready for some refreshment to meet our physical needs.

the Door of Humility, main entrance to the
Church of the Nativity
This gives us our first experience of a “coach party” restaurant on our pilgrimage. It sounds awful, doesn’t it, and I have to confess that I have always somewhat looked down my nose at such establishments, especially if I am alone or with only a few other friends in search of a quiet meal. But the Shepherds Tent Restaurant seems to cope admirably with nearly 150 pilgrims descending on it in one swoop (although it has to be said that the toilets don’t cope quite so well!). There are plenty of large low tables each surrounded by comfortable cushion strewn settee type seating and each accommodating around 8 – 10 people. The tables are groaning with a large number of dishes bearing many different types of salad and other appetising looking nibbles. We all tuck in with gusto, leaving absolutely nothing. So it is with some horror that we all slowly come to realise that this is only intended as the appetizer, as the main meal dishes comes along! Actually the meat looks dubious even for the carnivores in the party, and the veggie option is just that – a huge plate of grossly over-boiled carrots, beans and cauliflowers, and actually quite disgusting! We are glad we have tucked in to the first course. Perhaps the kitchens have not coped quite so well with our enormous party as we first thought.

I buy a bottle of water at the restaurant, tendering 20 Israeli New Shekels (ILS) and am given a 1 Euro coin by way of change. I think I have been robbed! A few minutes later I pick up a £1 coin outside on the path, so perhaps that is some recompense. I am still at a loss to know whether a fair price has been paid for the water: all very confusing!

This afternoon we are due to go to Manger Square and the oldest complete Christian church in the world, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, dating from the latter part of the sixth century. But first our bus called Hope drops us off at a Co-operative shop selling loads of different souvenirs, some rather lovely, some quite awful, and some jewellery including a necklace which the very persuasive sales lady tries to sell me for £800!! She must be joking but she is not. I am always pleased to support local traders and artisans wherever I visit, but not spending that kind of money!

Constantine's 4th century mosaic floor rediscovered in 1934
twelve point silver star, traditional site of the birthplace
of Jesus Christ
We are on our Bus called Hope, on this the second afternoon of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Southwark Diocese. On our way to Manger Square we see the Separation Wall, covered in graffiti. The coach park in Bethlehem on arrival is a huge underground car park and quite soulless, not the introduction I fondly imagined to this holiest and most emotive of shrines for the Christian pilgrim. But I have to cast this feeling aside and make the most of the surroundings to prepare me for what should be a special and meaningful visit. I must not let the setting spoil the experience. The church is built over a cave where by a long standing and unchallenged tradition Jesus was actually born. There is plenty of historical evidence for this being the birthplace, squashing totally those who would want everyone to believe that the whole Christmas story is only a fairy tale. The present structure dates mainly from the time of the Emperor Justinian with parts still preserved from the Basilica erected by the Emperor Constantine in AD 315. Why has this been preserved so well? Legend has it that when the Persians destroyed all the Christian buildings of the Holy Land in the seventh century, they noticed that on the West fa├žade of the building there were carvings of the Magi, their own ancestors. So it was for reasons of respect and reverence that they spared this Basilica!

Interior of the Church of the Nativity
Actually there is plenty of repair work now needed because of damaging water leaks and Italian craftsmen have recently won the tender invited by the Palestinian Authorities to repair this 4th century church and important Unesco heritage site.
The church is owned jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic Churches, and there have been sad and well publicised clashes between them, over who cleans which parts of the church!

We have to queue for quite a while to see the Cave of the Nativity, and the visit is in danger of being spoilt by the touristy feel of the place and the hordes of obsessive photographers. Here is one place where I would rather take home memories and experiences than photos. To get back to our hotel for our evening meal we have to go thorough the one and only checkpoint separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, at the gate known as Birqat es sultan, and we see a long queue of weary workers waiting to return home to Bethlehem after a long day’s work on the other side…

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