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Justin Welby speaks to Premier about fear of saying the wrong things in the Holy Land

by Sam Hailes

Justin Welby was speaking during his 12 day tour of the Holy Land, which has included visits to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Speaking on the eve of his visit to Hebron - a city which is partly controlled by the Palestinian authority and partly controlled by Israel, Justin Welby admitted that being diplomatic has it challenges.

"The thing that kept me awake before the trip and has continued to keep me awake during the trip is the fear of saying something completely inappropriate.

"And I probably have on a number of occasions said something that could be misunderstood. Almost anything you say here can be misunderstood and will be by some because in a conflict people hear things in a way you don't intend to say them."

"But you can't always be silent." he added. "It's no use sitting there just shtum. It doesn't make any sense. And you can't say nothing when you see things that are clearly very wrong or very dangerous."

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Speaking about his intentions while in the Holy Land, Welby said: "I think the aim is to try and be as positive as possible. So we try and talk about peace.

"We don't come here to lecture, lay down the law, tell people what to do. That's just daft!"

Having heard from leaders on both sides of the conflict, Justin Welby quipped: "After 2 weeks here you think you understand the situation, after 2 years you think you don't know anything."

"I've tried to be very careful to avoid saying what the government needs to do is 'X Y and Z'. I think that's politics not religion and its wrong."

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Welby also said he'd tried to be "balanced" in his comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While admitting the tour so far has been "absolutely remorseless, it never stops for a second", Welby said he'd been most surprised by the "depth of spiritual experience" he'd encountered.

"Over the years each time that I've come, it's been something that has drawn me deeper into Christ," he said.

"I think I thought it's going to be so busy and pressurised that it's going to be really hard to gain anything in terms of personal spiritually. But I've just been surprised and thrilled by the way that place has spoken to me."

When pressed on his comments yesterday that a "moment of opportunity" for peace is approaching, the Archbishop urged caution: "I used the word 'possible' and there's quite a strong emphasis on the word 'possible'. There have been other moments and there will be other moments. But this is just possibly a moment of opportunity where the plates have shifted a bit and we're in a better place.

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"Many people would disagree with that," he admitted. "But whether you disagree and agree, the Bible is quite clear: 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.' So that's what I say: pray for the peace of Jerusalem."

When asked why other Christians should follow his example and tour the Holy Land, Welby answered: "A pilgrimage here is the most marvellous opportunity for reflection on the common truths that all Christians hold that bring us before the face of Christ.

"It is not simply the dramatic, the grand. It is not simply looking at the views in which he looked in the Galilee. It's the reality of the incarnation that God walked about in this place. And you could have bumped into him at the right time."

"And come here because you see the whole range of world Christianity in micro. It's the most extraordinary experience of seeing things and thinking 'I don't even begin to understand what's going on here' and then you listen to people and if you're willing to put aside your preconceptions and listen to what they say about Christ, you think 'the God in whom we worship in Jesus Christ is so infinitely bigger and greater and more astonishing and wonderful than I ever realised.'"

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