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Iraqi pilgrims to visit Bethlehem

07 September 2012

A LARGE group of Christians from the southern Iraqi city of Basra are planning to make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem at Christmas, in the first organised visit to the Holy Land from the country for many years.

The venture, representing a rare piece of upbeat news for Iraq's Christians, is being supported by the Basra provincial authorities, who say that the pilgrimage will underline the religious plurality of Iraq. They added that it was the kind of support that they had traditionally given to groups of Muslim pilgrims wanting to go to Mecca.

The head of the religious minorities committee in the Basra provincial government, Saad Butros, said that security and visa arrangements for the Christians' visit to the Holy Land were being co-ordinated with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Mr Butros said that the Iraqi Christians would reach the Holy Land via Jordan, and the focus of the pilgrimage would be the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, because the town was on the West Bank. The pilgrims would not be visiting Christian sites controlled by the Israeli authorities, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, nor Christian shrines in Nazareth.

The small Christian community in Iraq has endured a torrid time over the past few years: the rising influence of jihadist Islamist groups has forced thousands of them to leave their homes, often to seek a new life abroad. But the attacks on Christian targets have occurred mainly in the central and northern districts of Iraq. Christians in Basra say that, if their planned pilgrimage is a success, they hope that believers in other provinces will follow suit.

The venture is likely to have its critics, however. Although the authorities in Basra have stressed that the Iraqi pilgrims to the Holy Land will not actually be setting foot in Israel, they will still be worship-ping on Israeli-occupied land, a fact that could spark hostility to the visit from Islamists.


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