JERUSALEM, DEC. 18, 2000 (
On the eve of Christmas 2000, the patriarchs of Jerusalem are calling pilgrims to return to the Holy Land.

In a joint message, the Christian leaders recognize the difficulty of traveling in the violence-stricken Holy Land, yet they believe that the pilgrims´ presence "will bring new light to the conflict between the two sides and will be an encouragement to all."

The appeal, which is signed by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Greek Orthodox Diodoros I, Armenian Orthodox Torkom II, and other Christian leaders, includes a commitment: The local Christian community will continue to proclaim peace and forgiveness through its presence in the holy places.

Pilgrimages have virtually stopped in the past two months as Israeli-Palestinian violence flared up. A sign of hope appeared, however, when a number of African bishops from Benin, accompanied by their countryman Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, arrived on pilgrimage. They only difficulty they encountered was access to Bethlehem.

The Christian patriarchs of Jerusalem and other religious leaders, in their message, admit that "our people will not be able to enjoy the traditional Christmas celebrations this year" because of the violence and insecurity.

Israeli political authorities recently threatened to close all access to Bethlehem, which would make any Christmas celebrations near the Nativity basilica impossible. Father Giovanni Battistelli, custodian of the Holy Land, has denied Israeli public television the right to a live transmission of the Christmas Mass from Nazareth.

The message from the religious leaders exhorts Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the world to collaborate with the advent of peace. "We have heard and accepted Christ´s Gospel of peace," the message said, "and we are witnesses and ambassadors of those to whom a message of reconciliation has been entrusted."