Arab Christians from Jordan risk all for Easter Sunday pilgrimage to Israel

Hundreds of Arab Christians from Jordan are risking their careers and reputation to complete an Easter Sunday pilgrimage to holy sites in Israel.

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    Worshippers in the Christian town of Fuheis in Jordan on Saturday. Many Christian Arabs from Jordan make the Easter Sunday pilgrimage to Israel and risk their reputation by committing such 'treason' to the Arab cause.
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Many of the Arab Christians flocking to holy sites in Israel this Easter Sunday come from neighboring Jordan.

But they do so at a price.

Those who make the trek – and, as part of a broader rise in religious tourism, more are making it every year – risk their professional reputation and their family’s disapproval.

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For a country whose 1994 peace treaty with Israel was never accepted at the popular level, receiving an entry stamp, let alone a visa from Israel, is considered “treason” to the Arab cause.

But despite a growing movement to discredit those involved with the “Zionist enemy,” hundreds of Jordanians risk their careers and reputation to complete a pilgrimage to holy sites in Israel’s occupied territories.

“I cannot help it,” says Daoud Yazeed, a Jordanian Christian who disguises his pilgrimages as business trips. “Jerusalem is calling.”

Religious tourism

In 2009, 15,000 Jordanians traveled to Israel, the most of any Arab or Muslim country. While a majority of them were visiting Palestinian relatives, a significant number are part of a growing trend of religious tourism.

According to tour operators, an increasing number of Jordanian Christians and Muslims – Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest city – are taking part in all-inclusive week-long trips through Nazareth, Hebron, and Jerusalem, priced at $600.

But under the Anti-Normalization movement, spearheaded by Islamists and professional associations opposed to Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty – or “normalization” with Israel – those found to have normalized are disbarred from their union and lose their professional licenses, which are required by Jordanian law.

Families further face the public humiliation of being added to a once-publicized blacklist of individuals and companies that deal with the “Zionist entity.”

'Anti-normalization' activists

Anti-Normalization activists are determined to crack down on the practice this holiday to bring to light those who have “normalized with the enemy,” according to Muslim Brotherhood and National Anti- Normalization Committee leader Hamzah Mansour.

“This is supporting Zionist efforts to rid the holy lands and Palestine of its inhabitants, and it is forbidden,” he said.

He compared trips to Jerusalem to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is considered the duty of every adult Muslim, pointing out that the journey is not required if a worshiper has poor health or a lack of money.

“Al Aqsa is occupied territory and you are not expected to pilgrimage to Al Aqsa. God understands,” Mr. Mansour said, calling on Jordanian Christians to pray in local holy sites this Easter to “support the local industry.”

According to the professional associations, they have yet to revoke union memberships over normalization. But the threat itself has deterred hundreds, if not thousands, from making the trip, or pushed their travel into secret, tour operators say.

Normalization, however, was the last of the concerns for Ramzi Mustafa, one of 200 Christian pilgrims from Egypt – the only other Arab country that has made peace with Israel – in the holy city this weekend with organized tour groups.

He said his participation in processions on Via Dolorosa on Good Friday is a way of showing support for the Palestinians and the need for peace, not support for “Zionism.”

“We do not approve of the occupation, and Easter is a way to pray for strength to endure,” said Mr. Mustafa, as he held up a wooden cross.

Nor do Muslim pilgrimages suggest support for occupation, says the head of Jerusalem’s holy sites, Sheikh Mohamed Azzam Tamimi.

"Jordanians and Egyptians, all Arabs should come and see the holy city,” he said, noting that due to visa restrictions most of the visitors are from Asia, not the Arab world. “We may be under occupation, but supporting our efforts is not normalization.”

Politics in the way of prayer

Politics should not prevent Arab Christians and Muslims from traveling to the holy city, according to William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, who welcomed all Arabs to take part in Easter services.

“Our dream is for all Arab Christians and Muslims to come and pray in the holy city,” he said, acknowledging the current situation has been “difficult” for Arab Christians across the region.

“They should come regardless of the political situation,” he said. “We should separate politics from religion, even if certain parties want to join them together; all have the right to pray in the holy sites.”

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