Feature: Israel’s Christian Tourists Traveling on Faith
As dusk fell over Jerusalem on a chilly January afternoon, Charissa Jaeger-Sanders and 47 other United Methodists from Florida lined up under towering pine trees to receive communion at the Garden Tomb, the place where they believe Jesus was buried and resurrected.
Weary after walking the Via Dolorosa—the narrow, stone-paved Old City street Jesus traversed en route to his crucifixion—they had sought rest and solace in the walled garden, planted with a profusion of cyclamens, marigolds and geraniums.
Before leaving the serene oasis, Jaeger-Sanders stopped for one more look at the burial site carved into the sheer rock face of an ancient quarry. Suddenly her eyes widened. She stared in wonderment at the shadows cast by an iron grate inside the tomb.
“I see a cross and the silhouette of a person with his head bowed,” she said, pointing at the image and trembling with excitement.
Behind her, two women who had also seen the image embraced each other, weeping uncontrollably. It seemed a fitting climax to an intensive, week-long study tour of the Holy Land.
Tears welled up in Jaeger-Sanders’s eyes as she exclaimed, “Thank you, God, for a holy moment.”
The promise of a life-changing experience while walking where, Christians believe, Jesus walked, preached, died and was resurrected attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel each year. In the first six months of 2006 (the latest period for which Tourism Ministry statistics are available), Christians comprised half of some one million visitors. And for those who came as pilgrims—that is, nearly half of all Christian visitors—the trip had an added dimension.
“It’s not travel, it’s a spiritual voyage, a journey into oneself,” said Yehuda Raviv, assistant manager for marketing and sales of Amiel Tours, one of the largest Israeli tour operators working with the Christian market.
Indeed, Sharon Spano, a member of Jaeger-Sanders’s group, spoke of her visit to Israel as “life-changing.”
“I’m a different person,” she said of the tour’s effect. “You know it on one level, but you don’t know it until you get here; I never really understood that we are an extension of [the Jewish] faith.”
Spano, Jaeger-Sanders and other members of their group, one-third of whom are graduate students at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, were so enthusiastic about the visit that they said they would return.
It was already the second or third visit for some of them. Ronald Marlor, who has a special interest in underwater archaeology on Israel’s northern coast, was on his fifth trip since 2004. And Judy Magdiasz, in Israel for the second time, said their spiritual leader had told them, “You have to come six or seven times to really know the Holy Land.”
For all their enthusiasm, Christians, like Jews, are sensitive to political upheaval in the region. This was evident in 2006, which started as a good year for tourism and went bad. “January to June we worked nonstop,” said David Katz, assistant manager of Sar-El Tours, another major tour operator that works mainly with Evangelicals and Christian Zionists.
But on July 12, 2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out. “After 10 days, we started getting cancellations,” Katz said. And though the war was over in August, cancellations continued through November.
Nevertheless, the percentage of Christian visitors to Israel has risen steadily since 2003, the peak of the second intifada, while the percentage of Jewish visitors has dropped to just 38 percent of the total.
“Many [Christians] come back, especially in difficult times, because they know that, despite what you see on CNN, you can travel safely in the Holy Land,” noted Katz, whose company handled the Florida group.
Susie Hamilton, who runs an organic farm in North Carolina and came with the Floridians, ignored her family’s warnings about traveling in Israel because, she said, “I thought the Lord would protect me.”
Of all the Christians who came to Israel in the first half of 2006, 44 percent were Catholic, 32 percent Protestant and 24 percent members of other churches.
Many come from the United States, still the biggest source of Christian tourism, said Nathan Hitron of Kenes Tours. According to Hitron, those who come are not from the mainstream Protestant denominations but Evangelicals and charismatics (the latter a group that believes in personal religious experiences and that divinely inspired powers—speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy—are available to modern worshipers).
“Their belief is so great that it overcomes their fear,” Hitron said.
There were large increases in visitors from Poland and the Czech Republic compared with the previous year, according to the Tourism Ministry. Other Christians also came from the Far East: Japan, Korea and Singapore.
The Israel they see is quite unlike that which Jews see, and Catholics have different itineraries from Protestants, Raviv said. Christian pilgrims want to visit sites, including archaeological excavations, that have a connection to the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament. Unlike Jewish tourists, they do not come in family groups.
And though they visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, they have little interest in modern Israel, including sites of recent battles.
Catholics have many masses in churches, whereas Protestants often have outdoor preaching or worship in natural surroundings, Raviv added.
Even the sites associated with events in the life of Jesus are not the same. According to Catholic tradition, the transfiguration of Jesus took place on Mount Tabor, while Methodists, for example, believe the event took place near the city of Banias. Similarly, Protestants visit the Garden Tomb, but Catholics believe the domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also in Jerusalem and actually a complex of shrines maintained by many denominations, houses the tomb of Jesus and the rose-colored stone slab on which his body was purified in accordance with Jewish tradition before burial. Galilee, the place of Jesus’ early ministry, is especially important to Evangelicals.
And whereas on Good Friday Catholics, some covered in mock blood and dragging huge crosses, walk the Via Dolorosa, for Evangelicals the biggest tourism event of the year is the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), when the country has a festive spirit. During the holiday, besides attending conferences and events at Jerusalem’s largest convention hall, Evangelicals join in the Jerusalem March, dancing and singing as they parade through the streets.
Lisa Lim visited Israel in January 2007 with a group from Singapore’s New Creation Church. This 15,000-member Evangelical church has been sending many hundreds of its congregants to Israel each year since 2003.
Their week-long tour took them to the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus preached and where visitors can sail in a wooden boat on the waters where Jesus walked; and to the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spoke his famous Sermon on the Mount. They also visited Nazareth, where Jesus’ family originated and, of course, Jerusalem.
The Western Wall, where a bar mitzva was going on during their visit, puzzled the Singaporeans, but that site felt more comfortable to them than the Temple Mount with its powerful Muslim presence.
Most of all, “the dungeon [in Jerusalem] where Jesus was, and places where we felt close to Christ, close to God” left an indelible impression, Lim said. “For us it’s like the Bible come alive.”
Making the Bible—both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament—come alive is first and foremost the job of the Israeli guide, often the only Israeli with whom the visitors will have significant contact.
“Avi is so well-rounded,” Spano said of the Florida group’s guide, Avi Ben-Yosef. “He’s educated us on [Jewish] culture and religion,” particularly at Masada, the hilltop stronghold that Spano said “shows the courage, the resiliency of the Jewish people.”
Even more important, Ben-Yosef is fully versed in the New Testament and the life of Jesus.
Israeli guides undergo “the most intensive of all guide courses in the world [and] understand the needs of a Christian traveler,” said Katz of Sar-El. The yearlong training includes 40 class hours on Christianity followed by annual refresher courses, many of them on Christian topics. Some veteran guides even have certification in Catholic studies offered in conjunction with the Vatican.
Guides must be judicious in presenting information. “With certain…groups, especially Evangelicals, you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and you don’t stray” from a literal reading of the scriptures, said Jeff Abel, who has been working with Christians for over 20 years. “It’s pointless to talk about the fact that 200 million years ago Israel was under water. They think you’re an idiot.”
Abel, an inveterate joke teller, said he also has to watch his tongue when he is trying to be entertaining. “With Evangelicals you cannot tell jokes where you say ‘goddamn it,’” he explained, “though with Catholics, you can.”
And guides must know how to respond tactfully to attempts to convert them, Abel said. On the eucalyptus-shaded banks of the Jordan River, where pilgrims covered in white gowns follow an iron railing to the water to be baptized, some Christians have asked him, “Jeff, what about you?” or have said, “It’s just a matter of time.”
Each group of pilgrims is accompanied, too, by a spiritual guide, whose presence is crucial. Hamilton said that one reason she was not afraid to come to Israel was that she knew the group’s leader, Robert Tuttle, would not do “something unsensible.”
Tuttle, a professor of evangelism at the Asbury Seminary, led daily study and prayer sessions. At the Garden Tomb, using down-home language and humor, he said that even if this was not the actual place where Jesus was buried, the message remained the same. “God created humankind to pour out his love; sin is that which separates you from others. Repentance is to grieve over that separation.”
A trusted group leader can make all the difference not only with tourists from the United States but also those from a country like Japan. The country was such a rich source of tourists in the peak years that 200 Japanese guides were trained and registered. According to Jerusalem-based Christine Sakakibara, who has worked for decades alongside her husband, Bara, to promote Christian tourism from that country, at least 50 Japanese guides were working from the mid-1980s until the start of the first Gulf War and in 2000. However, she added, only 10 Japanese guides are working today.
“The Japanese government continues to issue [security] warnings to travel agents,” Sakakibara said. “The people who are coming are [Christian] tour leaders who have come before, bringing groups and ignoring the government’s warnings.”
Lim’s group was accompanied by a lay leader of the New Creation Church, Adrian Raj Angappan, known simply as Raj. In the room of the Last Supper (or Cenacle), just above the tomb of King David, before handing the group to Raj for prayer and singing, tour guide Ilan Barkai spoke about the building and its history. Unlike the rectangular, clean-lined room with large windows depicted by Leonardo da Vinci, the Crusader-built Cenacle is a vaulted hall with wonderful acoustics, divided by three massive columns that support pointed Gothic arches. Still visible on the side facing Mecca is a prayer niche from the 16th century, when Muslims converted the hall into a mosque.
Raj introduced the spiritual highlight of the day in this place where, according to Christian belief, Jesus held his last meal (a Seder) with his disciples before his crucifixion.
Here, too, a miracle occurred at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended over the apostles and they spoke in tongues—that is, in languages unknown to them, as described in the Book of Acts.
And here, the members of the Singapore group, accompanied by a guitar, their eyes closed and their hands raised, filled the chamber with the harmonious sound of hymns.
Raj invited individuals to come forward, to allow the Holy Spirit to enter them and to speak in tongues; other group members offered support by laying hands on them.
“Shem Adonai [the name of God], shem Adonai, shem Adonai,” Raj intoned in Hebrew as he led the English-speaking worshipers on their spiritual path. If anyone spoke in tongues, only Raj heard them, but the participants were visibly moved to tears. Evangelicals are known for their strong support of Israel, so it is no surprise that they constitute a sizable portion of Christian visitors. But now more Catholics are coming, inspired by the words and the personal example of the late Pope John Paul II. Their representation increased from 10 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2006.
The origins of the current Catholic enthusiasm go back to John Paul’s historic proclamation at the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986 regarding Catholic-Jewish relations.
“You are our dearly beloved brothers,” he told the congregation. “In a certain way, indeed, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
Even more important was the pope’s letter on June 29, 1999, in advance of a planned pilgrimage in March 2000, his second visit to Israel. “The starting point will be certain key places of the Old Testament,” he wrote. “In this way I wish to express the Church’s awareness of her irrevocable links with the ancient people of the Covenant.
“Certainly, there are many other places associated with the earthly life of the Savior and so many of them deserve to be visited…. But…Jerusalem in a sense sums them all up…. I say it to everyone: Let us set out in the footsteps of Christ!” On Christmas Day 2006, Father Rino Rossi of Rome and a group of more than 100 Catholics of all ages visited Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. In the adjacent stone-paved square, they danced joyously in a large circle around singers and musicians with guitars and drums. A few other visitors passed through the church doorway, which is so low one must bow on entering, and descended to the marble-faced grotto to kiss the large silver star that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Rossi’s group came from Germany, Poland, Zambia, Australia and countries in Asia. They are all members of the Neocatechumenal Way, a movement that originated in early 1960s Madrid and is trying to revive the spirit of early Christianity, “like the first community,” Rossi said.
Music and song are vital elements in this spiritual revival, and so is the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “Every year we come here,” Rossi said. “It is an important experience.”
Although Rossi and his group want to be in Bethlehem on Christmas, most Christian pilgrims do not come on Christmas or Easter, and many do not come to Bethlehem at all because of the complexities of entering Palestinian-controlled areas. “Business is very bad,” lamented Bethlehem shop owner George Baboul, who sells traditional Bethlehem olivewood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs alongside plastic glow-in-the-dark rosaries and statues of Mary.
On the holidays, “Christians like to be home with the family, especially on Christmas,” Hitron said. “They tend to come in seasons that have good weather and good prices.”
And when they come, each pilgrim has a favorite sight and a special memory to take back home. Jaeger-Sanders said she tends to “find God…out in nature rather than in a church,” and that the Sea of Galilee and the Garden Tomb were the two most important places she had visited. The tomb might not be authentic, she said, “but it has the feel.”
And most of all, those were the places where she had found God.
A Sacred Tour
Most pilgrimage sites are near places on the itinerary of a Jewish visitor. For guidance, contact the Christian Information Centre, in Jerusalem, 011-972-2-627-2692, www.cicts.org.
- Church of the Holy Sepulcher—Suq Khan e-Zeit and Christian Quarter Road, Old City. According to all but the Protestant denominations, the church is built over Golgotha (Calvary), where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he was buried.
- The Garden Tomb—Conrad Schick Street, off Nablus Road, near Damascus Gate (www.gardentomb.com). Protestants believe this is the site of Joseph of Arimathea’s garden, adjacent to the crucifixion site, and of the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed. Free English tours must be booked in advance.
- Cenacle (Last Supper Room)—Jesus shared his last supper, a Seder, with his disciples in a second-story room; it is above King David’s tomb on Mount Zion.
- Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu—On the eastern slope of Mount Zion, the church commemorates Peter’s triple denial of Jesus and his subsequent remorse. Catholics believe the palace of Caiaphas, the Roman-appointed high priest who instigated the killing of Jesus, stood here. Jesus is said to have been imprisoned here.
- Mount of Olives—Jesus rode a donkey down this ridge on his entry to Jerusalem. He appeared here after his resurrection and ascended to heaven.
- Garden of Gethsemane—Several churches are here at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus prayed in anguish the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Here, too, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.
- Via Dolorosa—For at least 1,000 years, pilgrims have walked in Jesus’ footsteps on the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows). It begins at the Ecce Homo Convent, where he was sentenced by Pontius Pilate, winds through the Old City’s narrow streets and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
- Church of the Nativity—Manger Square (above, on Christmas Day 2006). The site’s first church, with magnificent mosaic floors, was built in 339 over the grotto where Jesus was born. The existing church was built in 530.
- Basilica of the Annunciation—This modern church is built over the grotto where an angel told Mary she would conceive and bear a son called Jesus.
SEA OF GALILEE
- Jesus lived in Capernaum, preached in the area and performed a miracle in Tabgha. He also preached his most famous sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes, just above Tabgha. —E.H.