Christian communities disappointed Justin Welby did not visit them during first trip to Holy Land since taking office
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The archbishop of Canterbury tours Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Photograph: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian Christians have expressed disappointment that the archbishop of Canterbury did not visit their beleaguered communities to offer solidarity on his first trip to the Holy Land since taking office.
Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican church worldwide, travelled across the imposing separation wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank on Thursday to open an Anglican medical centre in Ramallah. But his three-day schedule did not include a visit to Bethlehem and its surrounding villages, where Christian families have suffered severe economic hardship as a result of the barrier, and many have left the Holy Land.
"Palestinian Christians would have expected a close interest from one of the most important Christian figures in the world," said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official. "Christianity was born in Palestine, and the followers of Jesus Christ are suffering. These people expected something more."
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian politician and an Anglican, said the archbishop should have "reached out to Palestinian Christians. He should meet people and talk to them to see the impact of occupation and confiscation [of land]."
One of the main aims of Welby's visit was to show solidarity with Christian communities in the region, according to his office. However, his schedule did not permit a visit to the Bethlehem area, it added.
Christian families in the village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, have been waging a legal campaign against the route of the wall, which threatens to divide people from their land and cut off the monks of the Cremisan monastery from the local community.
The head of the Catholic church in England, the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has been vocal in his support of the people of Beit Jala and has criticised Israeli land appropriation. The UK government has also taken up the case.
"Christians in Palestine don't even know [Welby] is here," said one Beit Jala campaigner. "He has made no effort to go to the heart of the issues concerning Christians here."
More than 80% of Beit Jala's population is Christian, but overall the number of Palestinian Christians has shrunk to about 2% of the population of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Speaking in Jerusalem on Thursday, Welby addressed the issue of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. "I've had a lot of experience of working in areas where there's been killing of Christians. I've stood by mass graves of Christians ... while their killers were still watching," he said. But the right response was to heed Jesus's command to "love our enemies". He added: "It's the hardest thing we can ever say to people, an indescribable challenge."In an address to Christian leaders on Wednesday, Welby said Jerusalem must remain an open city, with Christians, Muslims and Jews having full access to its holy sites.
The ancient city was, he said, "the centre of the world in so many ways. The centre of three great faiths, the centre of much of the news that we hear; the centre in both good ways and bad ways. It is essential that Jerusalem remains an open city, with full access to the religious sites which are holy to three faiths."
His comments came shortly before the US secretary of state, John Kerry, arrived in the Holy Land for his fifth visit in a mission to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to talks in the hope of agreeing a settlement to their decades-long conflict.
The future of Jerusalem is a key element in any peace agreement. Israel, which captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day war, and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, claims the entire city as its indivisible capital. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Later, Welby told reporters that Kerry deserved "every blessing" for his efforts to restart peace talks. "I'm not possibly qualified to talk of the chances of success. Anyone seeking to put together a settlement in this area, we must wish them God speed and every blessing. But I don't think anyone has any illusions about the complexity of the task he's undertaking."
The archbishop emphasised his "very clear emotions and feeling that the State of Israel is a legitimate state... and has a right to exist in security and peace within internationally agreed boundaries". However, the same right applied to all people in the region "without exception", he added.
Welby, whose father's Jewish family fled to the UK more than 100 years ago to escape anti-semitism in Germany, visited Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, with his wife, Caroline, and son Peter.
"This is not a place for words, it's a place for tears and a place for learning and remembering, and I think the fewer words the better," he said. Later, he described it as an "extraordinarily personal and emotional moment".