Tourism as Touchstone For Faithful

Holy Quest

It's 3 p.m. at the first station of the Via Dolorosa, and the crowd gathers.

There are South African backpackers with pierced eyebrows and nose rings; young Japanese men with punkish long hair; elderly Irish ladies with prim woolen skirts and large crucifixes.

An array of brown-robed priests representing a Babel of tongues leads the day's flock along the Path of Sorrow, a series of shrines marking Jesus' footsteps.

Using microphones, and with portable amplifiers slung over their shoulders, the priests describe the 14 stations of the cross.

The pious and the curious will spend this chilly December afternoon before Christmas winding through the narrow alleys of Jerusalem, up stony staircases and sometimes onto rooftops.

They're led past a kiosk run by a Palestinian displaying support for the Muslim militant group Hamas, past souvenir shops bursting with olive-wood crches, ornate metal icons, and depictions of Jesus whose eyes blink when you tilt them.

Some participants soak up this atmosphere; others seem absorbed in prayer. As a group, they represent a span of views and emotions that paints a picture of diverse Christians drawn from all corners of the world to see the Holy Land.

The procession ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which includes the final stations marking the crucifixion. Some pilgrims appear moved, kneeling to kiss the stone slab on which Jesus is believed by some to have been anointed before he was buried.

But others will come away with little more than a feeling of having visited interesting historic sites.

And often, the churches with which they are affiliated will have a profound impact on the tenor of the journey - and determine whether they will gain more understanding, or sympathy, for one side or another in the Arab-Jewish conflict.

Fulfilling a dream

As clergy at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were polishing lamps earlier this week in time for Christmas, Vladimir Ponkratov and his wife were fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing Jesus' birthplace.

For the Russian couple, a trip like this would have been impossible years ago when the Communist Party discouraged religion and relations with Israel were poor.

"It's something that takes you from the earth and brings you closer to heaven," says Mr. Ponkratov, the head of a Moscow telecommunications company, after emerging from the subterranean shrine inside the church that is believed to mark the stable where Jesus was born.

But he did not see the church as just an historic marker. "It's all connected. It's impossible to divide history and God's presence. To touch the holy places, to see the history, not just from books but from seeing the life - it's a very strong feeling."

But that sentiment is not universal, as his tour guide explains. "Some of the pilgrims have problems and they come here to solve them or to ask for help from God, and you can see that.

"But sometimes they're disappointed because they don't expect to see shops and sellers and dirty floors in Bethlehem," says the guide. "They expect to see gold and spirit in the air and what they find is normal life."

For some Christians, their trips turn into something that is more of a tourist adventure than a pilgrimage.

"I'm enjoying it because it has historical significance. [But] I mostly came to have fun," says Phil Roscoe, a Protestant from Blackburn, England, after completing the Via Dolorosa.

His friend, a London engineer, said it didn't deepen his faith. "If you have faith, you don't need proof of it by seeing places. Faith is deeper than that."

For many pilgrims, however, seeing the land of the Bible is inspirational. Mary Lou Kasella, on pilgrimage with members of her local Roman Catholic church in Minnesota, went first to Rome and then came here, holding masses along the way.

Lingering at the Sea of Galilee near the Mensa Christi church, she says she and her husband saved for years to come here.

"I think it's going to take us years more to absorb what we've seen," says the mother of 11. "I think all of the readings we do out of the Bible have a whole new meaning."

Many such tours have increased their inclusion of 1st-century Jewish archaeological sites around Galilee - since they are places that Jesus knew and visited, according New Testament scriptures.

This is particularly a change for Catholic tours, which have often leaned toward support of Palestinians because Arab Christians here are predominantly of Latin and Orthodox denominations.

"It's helped me understand the roots of Jews and Christians," says Mrs. Kasella. "There are so many common beliefs."

Pilgrims and politics

Some pilgrims enter an all-out identification process. As a group of Nigerian Christians rested outside the Old City walls recently, their spiritual leader said a large part of his program was to educate his parishioners about Judaism.

"I came to explain to people the reality of the Bible, but also to teach Christians not to be hostile to Jews," says the Rev. Canon Noah Ajayi, an Anglican priest from Ekoti, Nigeria. "It is good for us to see the Jewish Sabbath, when people give reverence to God."

Taking an even bolder stand are Christian Zionists, usually members of evangelical Protestant churches. Represented by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, they pay for planeloads of Jews from the former Soviet republics to come to Israel and give financial support to other new immigrants here.

Believing that a gathering of the Diaspora to Israel will hasten the Second Coming, they insist Israel must not trade land for peace with the Palestinians.

"We stand in opposition to the efforts of the world to take away the land that God promised the Jews," says Stan Goodenough, an Embassy spokesman. Every year, they bring in thousands of like-minded worshipers - but the chosen time of pilgrimage is The Feast of Tabernacles, or Succoth in Hebrew.

While that holiday was once a harvest feast that Jews and gentiles could share, his church deemphasizes Christmas as a feast largely developed from pagan traditions. As such, he frowns on the word "pilgrim," too - even though his group brought more than 5,000 of them in October.

"Pilgrim conveys a [focus] on where things happened in the past," says Mr. Goodenough. "We're not only interested in bringing people to the place where Jesus was, we want to bring them to the place where Jesus will [return]."

Other churches come to different conclusions. The Franciscans run an information center inside Jerusalem's Old City that puts more emphasis on the Palestinian cause. It distributes information and raises money through the Washington-based Holy Land Foundation, which blames an exodus of Christian Palestinians on Israeli policy.

Roman Catholics from Italy often try to stay in Palestinian areas - and come away with a different perspective of the Holy Land than a Nigerian Protestant or American Baptist would.

"The Italians have always showed great solidarity with the Palestinians," says Abdullah Giacaman, who runs the Franciscan-sponsored pilgrims' guest house in Bethlehem. It is for this reason, he says, that Israeli authorities are reluctant to license Palestinian guides. "Tour guides are in contact with foreigners, and it gives you time to explain your political situation."

Randy Smith, who heads the Christian Travel Study Program, has the delicate job of teaching the whole spectrum of pilgrims who have come here to learn.

"My presentation will be very different depending on who they are," says Dr. Smith. "We end up with some groups that are very strongly politically motivated, and some which don't want to know about it at all.... We come at this as educators with cool heads."

By the Millions, and From All Over

In the countdown toward the millennium, the number of pilgrims to the Holy Land is rising each year: Bethlehem, for example, is bracing for more than 5 million Christmas visitors in the year 2000.

And the pilgrimage demographic is ever-changing. Even as some Americans have stayed away in the past two years due to terrorism and troubles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there has been an upsurge in pilgrims from countries where religious expression was discouraged in the past. While tourism to Israel was down 7 percent overall last year, for example, there was an increase in tourists from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The number of tourists coming from South Korea, where about half the population is Christian, jumped 45 percent.

Christians - about half of them Protestant - made up 55 percent of tourists to Israel last year, compared with just over a quarter of tourists who were Jewish, says the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. About 1 in 5 tourists said they were coming here on pilgrimage, totaling 2.36 million people.

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