By Perry West
While the transition of the American embassy to Jerusalem has exacerbated regional tension in recent months, the number of Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land has increased.
Last month 770 registered pilgrimage groups, some 26,000 people, visited Jerusalem, while 529 groups visited in the same time period last year, and 390 visited in January 2016. The statistics were recently released by Israel’s Christian Information Center,
A priest who recently took a group of young adults to the Holy Land told CNA that the pilgrimage was peaceful, and seemed to be unaffected by political tensions.
“The experience for everyone was very peaceful. You don’t necessarily experience any conflict in the environment,” said Father Daniel Cardo, pastor of Holy Name Church in Englewood, CO.
Sobhy Makhoul, deacon of the Maronite Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Asia News that the rise in pilgrims began at the end of 2017. “Between November and mid-December there were many pilgrims, so many that for the first time we had to house some of them in the city like Hebron, almost 30 km south of Bethlehem,” he said.
There has also been a notable increase in pilgrims from China, Russia, and Eastern Europe, among them are many pilgrims from Eastern Orthodox churches, Makhoul told Asia News.
Makhoul also said that a peaceful reaction in Palestine to the US Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has reassured pilgrims that Israel is a safe place to travel.
He said that most people in the region want peace, and that most recognize the economic importance of pilgrimage trips.
Fr. Cardo told CNA that there is also a general respect in the region for the sacredness of pilgrimages to Holy Land, which he called the “father land” to many religions.
“People from the Holy Land, whether they are Christians or not, and actually a vast majority as we know aren’t Christians, recognize … the sacredness of the practice of pilgrimage,” he said.
“It is moving to me to see how many people, whether they are fully into the spiritual experience or not, are attracted to” sacred sites in the Holy Land, he said.
“The experience of going to Holy Sepulchre in particular … It’s just entering into a mystery, pointing to the place that reflects the mystery of God’s victory, but such a stark contrast, with the craziness of our humanity – the many languages [and] the noise of the place.”
Father Cardo encouraged more groups of Catholics to travel to the Holy Land. He said the experience allows pilgrims to envision the reality of Scripture’s settings, and that pilgrimages help Christians in the Holy Land, who only make up a small fraction of the population.
“To visit Christian places and support local Christian businesses is a very important thing we have to do in order to maintain the life of the Church in those holy places,” he said.