National Catholic Register

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Virtual Holy Land Not the Same

Prospective Pilgrims Wary of Online Prayer Initiative

BY MICHELE CHABIN

MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT

June 24-30, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/19/07 at 10:00 AM

 

NAZARETH, Israel — Catholic officials in the Holy Land say they cannot support a new Internet prayer initiative recently launched by a group of Nazareth-based Christian businessmen, out of fears that it could dissuade people from coming on pilgrimages.

Even when technological innovations make it possible to pray online, “there can be no replacement for visiting the Holy Land, the cradle of Christianity,” Father Amjed Sabbara, the parish priest of Bethlehem, said. “What is important is that people come to the Holy Land and spend time with its Christian community.”

Toward the end of 2006, the businessmen, in cooperation with local leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church, launched an on-line “Light and Pray” service that enables people not actually present in the Holy Land to place a prayer request via the Internet.

Once worshippers have registered with the service’s interactive website (mirezo.com) and paid a $10 fee, they can pray in unison with the priest — and watch the proceedings in real time — as he lights a candle and says a personal prayer on their behalf at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel in Nazareth.

Salem, the director of Mirezo, the Nazareth company that conceived the project, said the idea for the Internet prayer service “was born in 2000, during the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land.”

At the time, Salem said, “many friends from around the world called me and other Christians to ask us to ask the [local] priest to give a blessing or light a candle for them since they couldn’t be here themselves.”

Pilgrim Shortage

Plans for the project gained momentum at the end of 2000 and grew throughout the years of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Salem says, when violence scared away tourists even from Nazareth, although it continued to be safe throughout the four-year intifada.

Salem insisted that the Internet project “is intended for Christians who, for whatever reason, cannot visit the Holy Land right now. It isn’t meant to replace pilgrimages.”

Ironically, it was not until the end of 2006, when pilgrims were once again flocking to the Holy Land, that Mirezo, a Nazareth-based organization that raises money for Holy Land Christians, managed to launch the project.

Mirezo means “my prayer” in Spanish.

In a letter posted on Mirezo’s website, Metropolitan Kiryakos, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Nazareth and the Galilee, asks an unnamed Catholic archbishop to encourage American Christians to support the endeavor.

“If such a spiritual contact of the faithful with the holy Place of Annunciation finds agreement with Your Eminence, I would ask you to recommend this initiative to the priests and the parishes,” Metropolitan Kiryakos writes.

Since its inauguration in March, the site has had more than 20,000 visitors, with thousands of Christians — 70% of them Catholic — requesting the lighting of a candle, Salem said.

No Church Approval

Catholic leaders in the Holy Land have not endorsed the initiative.

When contacted by the Register, several Catholic officials in the Holy Land said they had not heard of the project, but noted that Church policy frowns on any initiative that requires believers to send money to an unknown entity, especially by mail, money transfer or the Internet.

Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican-appointed custos of the Holy Land who oversees the interests of Catholic pilgrims, said, “I have not heard of this project in Nazareth, but in principle we are against projects that request money via the Internet. It is important to know where exactly the money is going and whether there are any hidden transaction fees.”

Father Sabbara said that any project that enables Christians to bypass an actual visit to the Holy Land — however well-intentioned — is bad for his embattled community, which is shrinking at an alarming rate. Today, Christians comprise less than 2% of the population of Israel and the Palestinian-ruled areas of the Holy Land.

Father Sabbara, whose photo appears on Mirezo’s website, said it was placed there without his permission, and that he does not endorse the on-line prayer project.

“Any Church permission has to come from the custos [of the Holy Land], which is responsible for our holy sites,” he said. “I do not personally know the details of the project and therefore cannot endorse it.”

(CNS contributed to this report.)

Michele Chabin writes

from Jerusalem.