For 2000, Israel Scrambling To Roll Out the Red Carpet

An extra 4 million pilgrims are expected to converge on Israel for the Jubilee year 2000, and that means a logistics nightmare is looming.

Israel looks forward to it.

With its economy shrinking for the first time in modern history, and unemployment at 10%, Israel is taking steps to welcome millennium pilgrims and the $3.4 billion they will bring with them.

But problems remain. Pope John Paul II has said he would like to visit the Holy Land next year. But such a trip is unlikely if there is no significant progress in the Middle East peace process. That process is stalled until Israel's general election in June. A Vatican decision on the trip is unlikely before the end of July.

Whether the Pope visits or not, pilgrim numbers will increase. Tourism is Israel's biggest industry, and usually 20% of those who visit are religious pilgrims. To highlight what steps have been taken to welcome Christian pilgrims, and to hear suggestions, last month the Israeli government invited 550 delegates from around the world to a Holy Land 2000 World Leaders Conference.

Attending the five-day conference were Vatican officials, pilgrimage organizers, tour operators, religious affairs journalists and senior clergymen, including Catholic bishops from Poland, the Georgian Patriarch, and Anglican bishops from England and Australia. The Palestinian Autonomous Authority was also involved.

The conference highlighted the major improvements made to Christian pilgrimage sites, particularly in Jerusalem and Galilee. Access and facilities have been improved, and many churches and shrines now benefit from nighttime floodlighting.

‘Tourist Friendly’ Strategy

Israeli officials gave assurances that emergency accommodations would be available if the millennium crowds prove far greater than anticipated. They added that security procedures at airports and borders will be made more “tourist friendly.” The border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, however, can be sealed off at any moment.

In Bethlehem, which is under the control of the Palestinian Autonomous Authority, refurbishment work is also under way. The large Israeli military barracks, much hated by Bethlehem's native population, has been demolished and in its place a “peace center” is being built. Much of Nazareth also resembles a building site at present; work there is scheduled for completion in the next four months.

Improvements to Nazareth have arrived late because the Israeli government discriminated against the town's Arab population, says Mayor Jaraisy Ramiz. He claims hotels in the town did not benefit until recently from tax-exemption grants made available to hotel construction projects in Jewish areas.

“After 1968, all Arab areas in Israel suffered discrimination,” said Ramiz. “Fifty percent of all tourists used to come here, but there was nowhere where they could stay the night.” Not only does Nazareth now have its own hotels, but the local population is also benefiting from new parks and open spaces designed to make the town more appealing to tourists.

The Church has broadly welcomed these improvements. Assumptionist Msgr. Robert Fortin, of the Jerusalem Patriarch's pilgrimage commission, thanked the Israeli Tourist Authority for its “considerable efforts.”

However, in a message to Israeli tour guides, Msgr. Fortin warned that Christian-owned hotels and hostels should be “patronized on an equal footing” with those owned by Israeli-Jewish groups. He advised that Israeli-organized tours for Christian pilgrims must include time for prayer, the reading of biblical passages and the daily celebration of the Eucharist.

“To a Catholic the word pilgrimage would be a misnomer without these essential elements,” he said.

Outlining the Church's plans for next year, Msgr. Fortin said Holy Week and Pentecost celebrations will be more elaborate than usual. There will be a special celebration at Cana for married people, he said, and a wide range of pilgrimages will focus on the sick, young people, seminarians and other groups.

Holy Sepulcher Site

Msgr. Fortin reported, however, “Things are not moving as well as they should at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. However, we have not given up hope of seeing improvements even there.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's holiest shrine, is, at times, a dismal place. Visitors wait an hour in line to see particular holy places such as the site of the Crucifixion. The church itself is dark and gloomy, and badly in need of repair and restoration — and will likely remain so for the near future. It is occupied by six Christian communities — Catholics (represented by the Franciscans), Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians — who jealously guard their rights and territories.

These rights are enforced by the “status quo” ruling imposed by Jerusalem's Turkish rulers in 1757 in a bid to end conflicts between non-Muslim religious groups. As well as governing Christian shrines, the status quo also guarantees the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The pilgrim does not come here for economic reasons, but for reasons of faith. Therefore there should be no bureaucratic obstacles in coming to this country.

Because current regulations are rigidly adhered to, little had changed at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Above one entrance a temporary ladder sits permanently for the only reason that a ladder has “always been there.” When an earthquake damaged the site in 1927, it wasn't until 1959 that a mutually acceptable restoration plan was agreed upon, and 1988 when the work was actually completed. To this day, because the Christian communities within couldn't agree who would hold a key to the entrances to the church, two Muslim families have responsibility for unlocking and locking the church's doors each day.

The Basilica of the Nativity is a far more pleasant spiritual experience and cooperation between the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans at the Church of St. Catherine appears to be good.

However, because of the sheer number of visitors, you have little time to cross yourself in the grotto where Jesus was born 2,000 years ago. And many of those who kneel before the hallowed spot marked by a 14-point star do not do so as a genuflection, but to take a photograph. For spiritual peace and tranquility, many prefer other sites: the Shepherds' Field or the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Since the time of the Crusades, a trip to the Holy Land is an experience in Realpolitik. But it is also a religious experience. Msgr. Liberio Andreatta, managing director of Opera Romana Pellegrini and member of the Vatican Jubilee Welcoming Committee, said of the Holy Land:

“There is no tourist who does not become an instant pilgrim the moment his feet touch this land. The pilgrimage is a very important tool to stabilize this country and bring peace to it. The pilgrim does not come here for economic reasons, but for reasons of faith. Therefore there should be no bureaucratic obstacles in coming to this country. This land is a land which belongs to everybody, and everybody should be welcome to it. We know why security is needed, but at the entrance and exit to this country tourists should feel welcome.”

In a document on the Jubilee of the year 2000, Incarnationis Mysterium, Pope John Paul II mentioned the Holy Land: “The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is almost upon us. Ever since my first encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis, I have looked toward this occasion with the sole purpose of preparing everyone to be docile to the working of the Spirit.

“The event will be celebrated simultaneously in Rome and in all the particular Churches around the world, and it will have, as it were, two centers: on the one hand, the city where Providence chose to place the See of the Successor of Peter, and on the other hand, the Holy Land, where the Son of God was born as man, taking our flesh from a Virgin whose name was Mary.

“With equal dignity and significance, therefore, the Jubilee will be celebrated not only in Rome but also in the Land which is rightly called “Holy” because it was there that Jesus was born and died. That Land, in which the first Christian community appeared, is the place where God revealed himself to humanity. It is the Promised Land which has so marked the history of the Jewish People, and is revered by the followers of Islam as well. May the Jubilee serve to advance mutual dialogue until the day when all of us together — Jews, Christians and Moslems — will exchange the greeting of peace in Jerusalem.” (No. 2)

CE Instead of A.D.

In a bid to make Israel more welcoming to Christian pilgrims, the government is launching a public awareness campaign about the economic importance of the millennium year. Education programs in schools and colleges will also explain the Christian celebration of the Jubilee.

There were signs that some such education is needed. A sign in the Israel Museum, for instance, is not quite right. It reads: “After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and particularly in the second century CE, Christianity started to direct its efforts towards the pagan world, adopting some aspects of classical culture. Around this time the stories of the birth of Jesus, his crucifixion and his resurrection, began to occupy an important place in Christian belief.”

The CE for Common Era, instead of A.D. for anno Domini, is understandable. But what might rankle some pilgrims is the implication that stories about Christ's death and resurrection were not important to the Christians of the first century.

In mitigation, Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, said, “Very few of Jews in Israel actually encounter people of other faiths. The transition from the second common millennium to the next provides unique opportunities for the Jewish-Christian encounter, especially in the land that is holy to both Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.

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