Philip Corbett makes his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land

As a first-time pilgrim to the Holy Land, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be simply a religious Disneyland? Would I bored by the ruins? And yet in no time at all I had fallen in love with the place, and am desperately wondering when I can get back.

The love affair began simply by reading Scripture in the place where it actually happened: seeing the spots where Salome danced for Herod; where Peter’s mother-in-law lived; and, most importantly, where Our Lord died and was buried. It is all brought to life by reading the Scriptures as you visit. It is not for nothing that the Holy Land is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel; although it would be a dull place if you did not read the accounts in the Gospels – and sometimes in the non-canonical books as well – about what actually happened there.

Story and place combine to make the sites wonderfully alive, and yet there is a sense in which the sites and stories do not come fully alive until you worship and pray in them – and, perhaps most importantly, with the Christian communities whose home it is. On our pilgrimage this took different forms. Among the highlights were worship with Anglicans in Nazareth, the Coptic liturgy at 5am in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Vespers deep in the heart of the Armenian Compound.

The Armenian Vespers was a particular privilege, as we were then invited to speak and pray with one of the priests. He prayed for peace and for unity and then gave us his blessing, asking us to remember the Christians of the Holy Land and Middle East in this period of persecution. We could not help but be struck by the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters; but also by their deep and committed faith. We need to think about ways in which we can help those living in fear and under oppression.

We can of course begin by praying: I have seen two recent prayer vigils in our parishes – one in Middlesbrough, and the other in Scarborough – and I am sure there are many more. Fr Oliver Coss has been fundraising for bibles for refugees, and up and down the land churches are finding ways to help those most in need. In doing this work are recognizing the fact that in the Holy Land and Middle East are full of living stones.

The Christian communities – who for centuries have worshipped and prayed in the land our Lord made holy by his incarnate presence – cry out in praise; but also in fear of persecution and death. They need our prayers and our help. The living stones we met in the Holy Land shared with us their love and their faith. They showed us hospitality and care, and they welcomed us with open arms.

The pilgrims I was with were particularly interested and motivated by two projects we visited. The first, the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, offers hospital care and rehabilitation for those with disabilities regardless of age, sex, religion, or race. It offers vital support for vulnerable people and gets no government support. The project seeks to be inclusive, and to find ways to support people in all parts of society.

The second project was the Jeel al Amal Boys’ Home and Co-Ed School, in Bethany. We spent a morning meeting the boys in the home and seeing the facilities. The home was founded in 1972 by Basil and Alice Sahhar, and was originally in their own house. It has grown and grown, and now the home desperately needs support to help look after the 100 boys in their care. What is wonderful is that boys who grew up in the home, whose name translates as ‘Generation of Hope’, return to work as house parents and mentors to current boys.

Alice Sahhar asked the question ‘in what language does a child cry?’ It is a powerful message as we see daily the plight of refugees and of our fellow Christians. We need to reach out and help in any way we can. My parish has pledged to support these two projects. What will your parish decide to do? We need to act before it is all too late.

More information on Jeel al Amal can be found at and The Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation at ND