ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Pilgrims Wanted

Christians of the Holy Land languish as visitors stay away

Standing patiently with arms crossed in front of the Awad Tours Company, accountant Alex Irbib passes his morning watching a line of cars crawl through a narrow stretch of Azzahra Street in East Jerusalem. Mr. Irbib has become a fixture on the sidewalk now that the phones have stopped ringing and customers no longer visit the office of the tour agency.

“We have no business,” says Mr. Irbib, who has been with the Awads, a Palestinian family, since 1999. “Look at me. I’m standing here doing nothing.”

Inside the shop, brochures titled “Nazareth” and “Jerusalem” are stacked in tidy piles, seemingly undisturbed in weeks. Chairs sit empty behind four desks with computers. Upstairs, there are places – all empty – for four more people to work the phones and to coordinate logistics for groups visiting Israel and Palestine.

Since 1860 Awad Tours has survived by providing hotel bookings, restaurant reservations and transportation for large groups of Christian pilgrims, typically from Europe and the United States. But since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, the flow of the devout to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other places of Christian pilgrimage has shrunk to a mere trickle.

Awad Tours, says Mr. Irbib, is doing 10 percent of the business it did during the first part of 2000. In normal times, the company organizes visits for 10 groups per month. In the first half of 2003, it booked three.

Hard times. The economic fallout from the violence over the last three years has been felt by both Palestinians and Israelis. Hotels in Israel and Palestine have lost more than $2 billion in revenue since 2000 with many going out of business altogether. In February 2003 overnight stays by tourists hit their lowest level since the first Gulf War in 1991 when Iraqi Scud missiles threatened the skies.

The impact has been especially severe in Palestinian communities, where a majority of people are unemployed and Israeli restrictions on movement severely limit work opportunities. Over 40 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank are unemployed. The figure tops 60 percent in the Gaza Strip.

The crisis jeopardizes the region’s Christian communities in ways that go beyond economics. According to Christian leaders in the area, the absence of Christian pilgrims in the birthplace of their faith is having a troubling impact on local parishioners and even the hope for peace in the Middle East.

“Pilgrimage has almost totally stopped since 2000,” says Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah. “There are a few pilgrims coming here out of true conviction, but these are only small groups, primarily from Italy, France and Spain.”

Most of the facilities reserved by Christian pilgrims are empty. The Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, owned by the Holy See and located just outside the Old City’s New Gate, has a capacity of 280 guests. During normal times, the center was usually full, with would-be guests making reservations months in advance. But during one two-week stretch last summer, the corridors echoed with the footsteps of as few as two guests a night and, at most, 15.

Violence in the Holy Land is a matter of fact. Israel’s greatest concern is security, which has been heightened as a result of repeated terror attacks. Citizens are accustomed to bag searches and metal detectors when visiting everyday spots – shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas – which have been favored for attacks by radical Palestinian groups.

Palestinians, too, have a concern for security. In the Gaza Strip and in West Bank towns such as Bethlehem, danger often arrives in the form of Israeli military incursions.

Many within the Christian community, however, say the perception of danger is exaggerated. According to Mill Hill Father Guido Gockel, CNEWA’s former Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, the dangers in the Holy Land are unlikely to threaten Christian pilgrims. “The Christian Holy Land is as safe as visiting New York or Paris.”

“There are always going to be places where there is a certain amount of danger. But violent attacks happen in predictable places. If you follow the normal path of pilgrims, visit the normal sites, there is no more danger than anywhere else.”

A Christian duty. At his office in the Old City of Jerusalem, Patriarch Sabbah says that the presence of pilgrims amounts to a completion of the natural community in the Holy Land.

“Pilgrims should always come even in difficult times because they belong to the land as Christians,” he says. “They have to be present as we are present. We are a small community of Christians here, but the thousands of pilgrims in the world who form a daily presence here in normal times are an integral part of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

Father Gockel agrees. Even if danger did lurk in the paths of pilgrims, he says, their visits to the Holy Land are too vital to allow even the threat of physical harm to deter them.

“When you think about historical pilgrimages even as recently as the first half of the 20th century, those were dangerous trips,” says Father Gockel.

“People left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and many didn’t even make it back. They were often attacked, killed or shipwrecked. Travel then was much more dangerous than it is today. But people did it, trusting that somehow God would be at their side.”

The importance of the presence of Christian pilgrims, says Father Gockel, goes beyond bolstering the community economically by purchasing Christian-owned goods and services. For Christians throughout the world, a pilgrimage should be an expression of their faith and their solidarity with the global Christian community. “The Christians in the Holy Land are people who are very, very hurt. They have the sense they are forgotten and don’t exist for their Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere.”

Pilgrims today, says Father Gockel, “should say, ‘I’m going there because it’s important for me, it’s important for the church, it’s important for the people there. I want to go on this pilgrimage and God will provide and God will strengthen.’”

Pilgrimage may have an impact larger than most realize. “It’s my real conviction that the Christian community here has a critical role to play in bringing peace to the Holy Land,” Father Gockel says, “but they are suffering too much at this time to be able to play this role.”

Among the faithful. Miguel Robleto, his wife, Marta, and a group of 110 Nicaraguans emerge from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on a sunny Friday morning. Dressed in white robes, the group files out of an early-morning Mass. As they do, a group of 55 Italians enters the chapel marking the site of Christ’s resurrection.

Two large groups of pilgrims sharing time at the church is a rare sight these days. As the group divides to pose for pictures, the smiling middle-aged Mr. Robleto explains his decision to come to the Holy Land very simply: “We are not afraid. We have faith in Christ.”

Father Fermin Muro of the Nicaraguan group says now may be the perfect time to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “Most pilgrims don’t have a lot of money,” the priest says. “The trip used to cost $5,000, but now costs only $1,500. These days people don’t have to spend as much money.”

The Nicaraguans’ visit exposes another reality of pilgrimage today in the Holy Land that concerns some in the Christian community. The group’s trip – like that of the Italians’ – is being handled by an Israeli company and they are being led through one of Christianity’s holiest sites by a Jewish Israeli. In fact, Jewish Israeli firms are winning the lion’s share of the business of Christian pilgrimage, thanks in part to Israel’s aggressive international marketing campaign to bring tourists to the area. The Israeli Tourism Ministry plans to inject $1.2 million in an overseas marketing campaign targeted in part at Christians.

Father Gockel says the few Christians who find the courage to visit the Holy Land are being shown the holiest Christian sites by members of another faith at a time when local Christians so need the support of the pilgrims.

He recalls visiting the house of a friend in Poland who had a certificate of pilgrimage framed on his wall. “I said, ‘This is so terrible. You’ve hardly seen the Christian sites and you didn’t meet any of the region’s Christians.’”

Back at the Awad Tours Company, it is nearly 12:30 p.m. and Mr. Irbib is preparing to close the shop for the day. Another day has passed without a phone call or a tourist popping in.

But as Mr. Irbib gathers his things, a woman unexpectedly enters from the street. He spins around, perhaps hoping for a chance at some business. Dressed in a light-colored head scarf, the woman extends her hand to ask for money. The accountant shakes his head kindly and shows her to the door. “Well, we do have some traffic. We get a few like this woman everyday.”

Ben Cramer is a journalist and radio producer living in New York City.

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