Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made a surprise visit to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip during his 10-day visit to the Holy Land, his office said.
Welby on Thursday spent more than three hours in the beleaguered Islamist-dominated coastal strip, which has a small persecuted Christian community.
During the visit, his first to Gaza, Welby visited the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital and the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The archbishop led a prayer service in the hospital chapel.
Then, accompanied by Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, he visited the World War I Commonwealth Gaza War Cemetery, where he laid a wreath.
— Lambeth Palace (@lambethpalace) May 4, 2017
The archbishop also “joined a lunch reception to hear from the Christian community about the particular challenges they face in Gaza,” his office said.
There were some 3,000 Christians in Gaza, but in recent years the number has declined to just 1,300. While the community is officially tolerated by the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip, there have been persistent reports of persecution and even forced conversions.
Many have also left due to the harsh conditions in Gaza, hit by frequent conflicts with Israel and an Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the strip aimed at stopping Hamas from importing weapons.
Welby visited Jerusalem on Wednesday, and was joined by UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis for prayers at the Western Wall.
In what Mirvis described as “a unique moment in history,” the two religious leaders toured the Old City of Jerusalem and visited Yad Vashem.
“It was a very special afternoon for me, to be able to walk through the Jewish Quarter with the Archbishop, to show him memories of my own, where my wife and I lived for two years, and to live and breathe the Jewish history of the city, leading to the prayer together at the Kotel,” Mirvis told the Jewish Chronicle.
Welby invited Mirvis, a personal friend, to join him for his trip to Jerusalem in what is the first time heads of the two faith communities visited the city together.
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) May 3, 2017
After visiting the Western Wall, Mirvis spoke of the historic moment when the head of the Church of England and the leader of Britain’s Jewish community prayed together.
“I would so love to send a message of hope back through the annals of history — to Clifford’s Tower in York, to the medieval communities who endured the scourge of the blood libel and to those whose lives were devastated by the Crusades — to let them know that a Chief Rabbi and an Archbishop of Canterbury would one day pray alongside one another, as close friends, in the holy city of Jerusalem,” according to a reporter for The Times.
— Kaya Burgess (@kayaburgess) May 3, 2017
Earlier the two faith leaders visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, where they laid a wreath and signed the visitors’ book.
At the museum, Welby spoke of anti-Semitism as the root of all European racism.
“Within European culture, the root of all racism, I think, is found in anti-Semitism. It goes back more than a thousand years,” he said. “Within our Christian tradition there has been century upon century of these terrible, terrible hatreds. One people, who contributed more to our culture as a people than almost any other that one can identify, was also hated more specifically, more violently, more determinedly and more systematically, than any other group.”
— Jewish News (@JewishNewsUK) May 3, 2017
The archbishop also spoke of the need to counter the rise in anti-Semitism.
“Coming here today I am reminded how important that is, and particularly when having spoken to members of Parliament over the last few months who are Jewish, they have spoken of the upsurge in attacks on them and the wickedness that they have suffered,” he said.
Mirvis stressed the importance of personal friendship and of building bridges between the faiths.
“So by being here together, the two of us are sending out a very strong message. Today in Jerusalem we prayed together for peace and today in Jerusalem we call on all others, not just to yearn and pray for peace, but to do something proactive to guarantee that we within our fragile and divided world, will indeed achieve peace. That will be the ultimate tribute for us to pay to the victims of the Shoah. May their memory be for an eternal blessing.”
— Chief Rabbi Mirvis (@chiefrabbi) May 3, 2017
The two religious leaders paid a visit to Hebrew University, to pay tribute to UK student Hannah Bladon who was murdered last month in a terror attack.
Welby visited Israel as part of a 10-day tour of the region, his first visit since 2013. He will also visit the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.
— RHC (@RHCJO) May 2, 2017
Earlier on Wednesday he was in Jordan where he led prayers at the Bethany Beyond the Jordan archaeological site, believed to be the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth.
He called for greater support for those in need, saying: “In this place where we hear birdsong and running water we are surrounded, within a few kilometers (miles), with violence.”
The archbishop met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and also visited St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Amman. Following his visit, he commented that “it is an extraordinary place — a congregation made up of Jordanians, a few Egyptians, some Syrians (though many of these have been resettled) and Iraqi refugees.”
He also stressed the role of Christians in the Middle East.
“We must also find ways of improving things in this region. We do not want a Middle East without Christians. Christians have a long history in the Middle East, they are still here, and they surely must be part of its future.”
AP contributed to this report.