The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating Christian churches in the world. It is built over the Grotto traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The current basilica was built in 565 AD, replacing the original which was built in 333 AD and burned around 529 AD. The spot where Jesus is believed to have been born is marked by a 14 pointed star, and illuminated by oil lamps that have burned non-stop for over 1,000 years. In 2012, the Church of the Nativity was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The International Peace Light from Bethlehem is a continuously-burning flame, originating from those very lamps at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and spread around the world each year during Advent. It is meant to promote peace, harmony and unity among the people of the world regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. For over three decades, the International Scouting movement – both Boy Scouts and Girl Guides (Girl Scouts in the U.S.) – have actively promoted global peace and harmony through the distribution of the International Peace Light.
Now in its 34th year, the International Peace Light from Bethlehem campaign was originally organized by the Austrian Broadcasting Company (ORF) and was part of a large charitable relief mission called “Light into Darkness” for children in need in Austria and abroad. Since 1986 there has been a great deal of cooperation between Scouts from many countries, which has allowed the light to travel all throughout Europe. Each year the light is passed on to over 30 European countries and, for the past two decades, to the United States, Canada and Mexico as well.
Each year, a child from Upper Austria is named that year’s Peace Light Child, and travels with a delegation to Bethlehem to receive the flame from one of the Grotto’s oil lamps. The light is then flown from Tel Aviv, Israel to Vienna, Austria, where it is distributed at a Service of Dedication. Approximately 1200 scouts from more than 20 different European nations attend the event, and in turn take the Peace Light back, with a message of peace, to their own countries. The Peace Light is then shared with individuals, families, houses of worship, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and cultural centers – with anybody who can appreciate the significance of this gift.
The International Peace Light shined on the reopened Berlin Wall in 1989, then crossed the fallen Iron Curtain and was distributed to the former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe in the 1990’s. In past years the light has been presented to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former King Hussain of Jordan, EU President Romano Prodi and other members of the European parliament in Strasbourg, the UN Troops in Kosovo and continues to be taken to Ground Zero in New York City.
Due to unrest in the West Bank, the 2012 Peace Light Child was unable to travel to Bethlehem to receive the flame at the Grotto of the Nativity. Instead, a local boy took her place in the ceremony and shared the flame with officials from Austria, who flew the Peace Light back to Austria and in turn shared it with the Peace Light Child. Again in 2020, due to COVID-related restrictions, no Upper Austrian child was nominated to carry the light from Bethlehem to Austria. Instead, 9-year-old Maria Khoury from a Christian family in Bethlehem had the honour of collecting the Light of Peace from the Grotto of the Nativity.
The Light of Friendship & Peace was first introduced to the United States in 2000. It was flown from Oslo with a brief stopover in London before landing in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the headquarters of Phillips Petroleum Co., the sponsors of the flight. The light quickly spread to 6 states in America’s heartland. Following the tragic events of 9/11, Austrian and United Kingdom Peace Light organizers privately brought the Light to Phillips Petroleum in Maine. Met by Boy and Girl Scouts, the Light was taken to New York City where it was delivered to mortuary workers at Ground Zero with a message of peace and hope. Soon after, an Austrian Delegation also delivered the Peace Light to New York City where it was formally presented to the Rector of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as a gift and message of love for all in the United States. In 2002, DHL delivered the Peace Light as a gift from Belgian Scouts and Guides to the Boy Scouts of America in New York.
In 2003 the light didn’t make it to the U.S. Fortunately, members of the Catholic Committee on Scouting for the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens had kept the 2002 Peace Light burning, and shared that flame again in 2003. In 2004 the Austrian Scout Movement, Austrian Airlines and the Boy Scouts of America International Division arranged to bring the 2004 Peace Light to New York. Dr. Thomas Ertlthaler, International Commissioner of Austrian Scouting, flew from Vienna with the Peace Light in two explosion-proof British mining lamps, fueled by smokeless paraffin oil. Austrian Airlines has continued to bring the Peace Light each year from 2005 through 2019. It has been distributed across North America largely via a Facebook group for the past few years. Earlier this year, a new website became active. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the 2020 Peace Light will not make it to North America, but luckily flames which travelled to the U.S. in 2019 have been kept burning, and are being shared across the U.S.
Many churches share the Peace Light during ecumenical services, use the flame to light the candles on their Advent wreaths, pass the flame from person to person during candlelight Christmas Eve services, present the flame to the community at parish tree-lighting events, and deliver the flame to shut-ins and those experiencing loss, illness and hardships. Many churches also maintain the Peace Light year-round, using the flame to ignite baptismal candles and votive lamps. Individuals and families have shared the Peace Light flame with neighbors, relatives and friends both near and far, challenging each recipient to become a channel of peace through his/her words and actions. Many local Scout Council offices also serve as distribution points.
Sources, photos, and videos
– 2019 U.S. Peace Light travel map (as you can see, it did not make it into Alabama).
– 2020 Aleteia story about the Vatican’s 2020 Christmas stamps celebrating the Peace Light of Bethlehem.
– 2015 Seattle Peace Light video
– 2017 BSA Lake Erie Council Peace Light video
– 2018 Catholic News Service Peace Light video
– 2020 Peace Light North America Virtual Share Ceremony video