ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Not an Accidental Tourist

The author’s trip to the Holy Land unearths more than just sites and tourists.

Early last October I was invited to accompany members of the Catholic press on a tour of the Holy Land. I was aware that Israel’s Ministry of Tourism had initiated a spirited campaign to increase Catholic tourism to that country; according to travel experts, Catholics were a previously “untapped” market.

Excusing the neglect to mention 1,700 years of Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land as an oversight, I decided to go. The itinerary appeared fascinating and the timing was perfect. We would be in the Holy Land one month after the signed agreement between Israel and the PLO; I was eager to check the peoples’ pulse.

That first morning in Jerusalem I was awakened by the Muslim call to prayer, the competing clanging of church bells and the shrill cries of roosters. The Franciscan bell ringing was elaborate while the Russian Orthodox simply pounded a gong. These dissonant sounds suggested the tone of my sojourn in the land of Jesus. I would hear and see much in the next few days; not all of it would harmonize.

The Israeli-assigned guide took charge of our small group of seven. From the front of our hotel on the Mount of Olives she gave an elaborate overview of the geography of the region. She dwelt on the availability of water. Water, which is absolutely necessary to sustain life, determined the site of this city, she said.

From the Romans’ impressive aqueducts along the Mediterranean to the dissipating waters of the Galilee, from the dry riverbeds in the West Bank to the thoroughly watered lawns in Israeli neighborhoods, water persisted as a dominant theme throughout the trip.

Today the right to water is a thorny issue among Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Although holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Jerusalem, with its environs, remains important for its position: whoever holds Jerusalem, holds the region; whoever controls the region, controls the water supply; and whoever regulates the water supply, regulates life.

The life of Jesus began in the small village of Bethlehem just seven miles from Jerusalem. After breezing through the checkpoint – Bethlehem lies in the occupied West Bank – our small and dusty bus approached the square in front of the ancient Church of the Nativity. We encountered a traffic jam resembling the typical traffic troubles plaguing parking lots after Sunday Mass in the States. Even the armed Israeli soldiers seemed helpless – or maybe just too apathetic – to control the blaring horns of the hordes of buses or the piercing screams of the drivers. The flow of pilgrims to Bethlehem, which since the beginning of the intifada had been reduced to a trickle, has flooded the town since the September agreement.

Eager to see the place of Jesus’ birth, I left my group in the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine (which is connected to the 4th-century basilica) and stepped down into the hot and humid cave below the ancient altar. There I found a crowd of weeping Italian widows wrapped in black wool crouching to kiss the silver star that marks the hallowed site. I flinched as the flames of their beeswax tapers seared their mourning clothes.

After singing “Adeste Fideles” with them in Latin, I walked back up the steps. As I reached the top step I noticed an Arab woman holding a sleeping child in her left arm while clutching the hand of a toddler on her right. A gentleman – I assumed him to be her husband – began to assist her. The family was Muslim – the woman wore the hijab, the traditional scarf donned by married Muslim women. I know Muslims venerate Christ as a prophet and revere the Virgin Mary as holy; however, I had never witnessed this devotion.

While I was wandering the nave, a group of Greek pilgrims burst through the door, approached the Greek Orthodox custodians, kissed their hands, purchased candles and descended the steps – all in a matter of minutes. The queue of American, English, German and Italian pilgrims stood bewildered.

The basilica is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Franciscans, with the Greek Orthodox the primary stewards. To be Greek, or to act Greek, has its advantages in the Holy Land.

Unlike most tourists, I had dinner in Bethlehem’s lone Chinese restaurant. Among the party were two Americans and one Swede, but the majority of the group were Palestinians. All were young, but of every creed. Armenians, Copts, Greeks, Latins and Muslims sat at that one table, laughing, eating, drinking, living.

James Richard, our Pontifical Mission’s project administrator in Jerusalem, had invited me to come along. He wanted me to meet just a handful of the people we see listed as statistics in our newspapers, or worse, labeled as terrorists.

That night I heard jokes about an upstart Latin family: the family – French in origin – arrived “late” in the 14th century! The jesting originated from an Armenian couple who traced their families to the late 4th century.

“How young and naive we Americans are,” I mused. “We are mere newborns.”

But as the evening drew to a close the romance of eating Chinese in the City of David faded. The Palestinians, who a moment before laughed with ease, began to practice a variety of responses they planned to use if stopped by soldiers at the numerous checkpoints.

Back on tour with the group, our guide asked us to focus on the striking number of bright green saplings in the Judean hills. As our driver negotiated the rough terrain, she explained that these saplings had been planted recently by Israeli children. This was lauded as a great endeavor – indeed it is. Sand and sun are difficult elements in which to initiate large-scale reforestation. The success of Israel’s reforestation program was even more evident in the milder climate of the Galilee.

Again breaking from the tourist circuit, I was invited by Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C., vice president of the Pontifical Mission, to hear a Palestinian musical ensemble perform in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ironically trees, particularly olive and orange trees, were among the primary themes of the many songs performed by this band, who combine traditional Arab music with Western sound.

Although performed in Arabic, I knew these were passionate hymns about their lost homes, their land. After each song Brother Donald would fill me in, “that was about their uprooted olive and orange trees.”

“The last piece described their destroyed gardens and flowers.”

Lyrics about fauna and flora would not normally excite a Western audience. However these were not Western fans, but Palestinian boys and girls from a barren city devastated by the occupation. The trees, flowers and birds described in song were not ordinary fauna and flora, but symbols of their past.

What we read in the newspapers, what we see on our televisions and what we hear from the so-called experts supposedly embody truth. Alas these are often false. Reports of any kind contain only portions of the truth. More often they reflect the author rather than the subject.

I was not an accidental tourist to the Holy Land. I wanted to meet people, Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. It is people who enable us to begin to understand our common humanity and the challenges we face together.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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