[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 18:38 GMT
Church leaders in Bethlehem visit
Rowan Williams, Reverend David Coffey, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor
A mass was held in the Grotto, thought to be Jesus' birthplace
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales have arrived in Bethlehem on a Christmas pilgrimage.

Rowan Williams and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said they wanted to highlight how Israel's security measures were strangling the town.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said Israelis and Palestinians needed international support to solve their problems.

Two other church leaders joined them on the four-day visit to the Holy Land.

The two archbishops travelled with Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, and the Rev David Coffey, of the Free Churches.

Jesus' birthplace

During their visit, they toured the Church of the Nativity and recited prayers in the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.

The church leaders are concerned about the effect of the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel on Christians living in the region.

Dr Williams said he also worries about an exodus of Christians from Bethlehem, changing its historic Christian nature.

You cannot expect with this intractable position for the Israelis and the Palestinians to do it all by themselves
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor

"The sheer variety of communities within the Palestinian areas has always been one of its strengths.

"Co-existence has been easy and often fruitful.

"If that were to end that would be a very sad signal for the Middle East and the rest of the world."

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has previously said the town was "blocked in" by the Israeli security wall and checkpoints.

Speaking on BBC News 24, he said: "You cannot expect with this intractable position for the Israelis and the Palestinians to do it all by themselves."

He said the international community needed to help resolve their differences.

BBC correspondent Wyre Davis, who is in Bethlehem, said in a good year 50,000 pilgrims would visit Bethlehem, but this year fewer than 5,000 are expected.

He said some say this is a consequence of the wall, but Israel argues it is because of general violence in the region.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The Mayor of Bethlehem talks of the town's troubles



SEE ALSO

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific