Bethlehem Welcome to Bethlehem the start of our walk. Bethlehem is known to most people as the birthplace of Jesus and is therefore a major Christian pilgrimage destination. His birth is marked by an inlaid silver star in a grotto under the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, which shares Manger Square with the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine. Fr Issa Thaljieh, the Orthodox Parish Priest of the Church welcomes you from this Grotto: Around the grotto of the Nativity, there are other grottoes tied to the memory of St. Jerome. Next to the Basilica lies the Church of St. Catherine preceded by a small courtyard. To get the feel of Bethlehem and its place in our history watch - Bethlehem is a collection of very fertile villages that grows almonds and, more importantly, olives for oil. It’s so fertile because Bethlehem sits on an enormous aquifer, which eventually became the water source for Jerusalem in around 200 BC. Bethlehem was built specifically to sit on top of the aquifer which is why the Bible always talks about the best tasting water coming from Bethlehem. Today, the city is surrounded by two bypass roads for Israeli settlers, leaving the inhabitants squeezed between thirty-seven Jewish enclaves, where a quarter of all West Bank settlers, roughly 170,000, live; the gap between the two roads is closed by the 8-metre high Israeli West Bank barrier, which cuts Bethlehem off from its sister city Jerusalem. Tourism is Bethlehem's main industry. Unlike other areas of the West Bank, the majority of the employed residents did not have jobs in Israel. Before the pandemic around 40% of the working population was employed in the industry. Tourism accounts for approximately 75% of the city's economy and had more than two million visitors every year up to 2019. The majority of the rest of the population are employed in sectors to support tourism or to service tourists with hundreds of handicraft workshops producing mother-of-pearl, olive wood and textiles as souvenirs, 73 shop for vocational industries like blacksmithing, carpentry, and the aluminium industry, 37 butchery shops, 26 bakeries, 95 grocery stores and185 shops for selling clothes. Friends of the Holy Land’s mission is to support a sustainable Christian presence. Christian Community The percentage of Christians in Bethlehem has been in a steady decline since the mid-twentieth century. In 1947, Christians made up 85% of the population, the population today: Population: 55,000 Christians: 11,580 (21%) The majority are Greek Orthodox with Latin Christians numbering around 5,000 and a small number of Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans and Baptists), FHL supports families of all denominations. Our work is focussed on the areas of Education, Employment, Family Support, Health and Housing Improvement and you can read further regarding the different aspects of our work here - Our work. We believe we are the only UK based charity that maintains an office in Bethlehem from which we run most of our mission in the West Bank. The office is staffed part-time by two most compassionate Christian women and we are most fortunate to have the guidance of a dedicated committee of high-profile volunteers well-regarded by the communities of the major Christian denominations. You can read their profiles here - Holy Land Committee. Beit Sahour – School of Joy, our biggest project in the area If you zoom in your ‘flag’ to street view on the map segment of your fundraising page you will see you are standing outside the School of Joy in Beit Sahour. This is just a few miles east of Bethlehem in an area known as ‘the Shepherds Field’ where stands the church commemorating the Angel’s announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds. School of Joy is a Christian facility to support the education and therapy of children with special needs which we have supported since 2009. Life for families of children with special needs is difficult at the best of times. In many cases children with low academic achievements are forced to drop out of government schools as they need extra assistance. As there is no other provision for their therapy and education, they are either confined at home or end up on the streets. You can find out more here or watch our short information video: Before 2020 School of Joy received some of its funding through donations from pilgrims that visited the school and from some smaller charities in UK and Europe; Friends of the Holy Land funding roughly 70% of the school’s needs. The impact of the pandemic has been that pilgrims have not been able to visit and donate, and the smaller charities have struggled to collect donations. The end result being that we have had to step up for 100% of the funding needed by School of Joy last year. As conditions remain the same, we expect that we will need to provide this level of support again this year with your help. Fr Mamdouh, the founder of School of Joy is practised with the use of zoom etc. and is eager to meet with parishes, schools and groups virtually so he can tell you more about the history and successes of School of Joy.You can watch his message here: The Pentecost Challenge highlights the need of Christian families for our support in meeting the fees to keep their children at faith schools and universities. There are eight government schools in Bethlehem, managed by the Palestine Ministry of Education and there is one school supervised by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees - UNRWA. The government schools are beset with staff shortages, inadequate buildings and underfunding. There are also ongoing controversy and disputes locally with Israeli education authorities over the contents of school curricula which have been picked up in the UK; as recently as 11 March 2020, Conservative MP Jonathon Gullis initiated a parliamentary debate about the alleged promotion of hate and radicalisation by PA textbooks. Since Donald Trump’s withdrawal of $300 million in funding to UNRWA their schools have faced severe budget cuts. For higher education, there are two universities Bethlehem University, the only Christian University in the Holy Land and Palestine Ahliya University, in addition to three colleges, Caritas Hospital College of Nursing, and the College of Dar al-Kalima, and the College of the Holy Bible. Schools were closed initially by the pandemic but opened for the 2020/2021 year on September 4th 2020. In October 2020 Friends of the Holy Land helped to support Christian families with the education of 182 children across the 14 independently operated Christian schools administered by Christian institutions with a Christian ethos and one technical college run by the Salesians. In addition, we helped to fund 28 university students pursue their education in the West Bank (15 of these at Bethlehem University) and a further 20 university students in Gaza. As the unemployment crisis caused by the pandemic continued, we supported a further 70 children in December with their school fees from the proceeds of our Christmas appeal. As reported by Suhail Diabes, Principal of the Latin Patriarchate School in Beit Jala, the new health protocols imposed by the authorities not only caused issues for the schools to comply but also impacted many families on top of their already difficult struggle to make ends meet. These protocols mix teaching by attending schools with virtual remote teaching, allowing only half of the students to attend in school classes at a time. So, a class of 60 students that were usually divided into two sections are now divided into four sections. Suhail remarks, parents, already under stress faced “new challenges, the average of family members is 4 children, which means that they must have internet connection and sufficient tablets, laptops and computer devices. Not all families were able to pay their internet bills nor buy electronic devices.” Suhail speaks further about his experiences here: And has a written report here As the conditions have not improved, we expect our office in Bethlehem to face more requests for help with school fees as the academic year approaches – we need your help. Before we set off on our virtual journey we should recall the Pilgrim's Prayer - O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth and the Life; grant to us who shall tread (virtually) in your earthly footsteps, a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly. Amen Now it is time for you to set off on your walk. The first place you will visit is Jerusalem – just 6 miles away. See you there!