Holy Land Pilgrims, '90s Style

As peace progresses, Christian visitors seek new experiences

THE Mideast is no longer the crossroads of the world, but a remnant of those days of silk-and-spice caravans comes to life every year at this time: pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

From Tokyo to Toledo, pilgrims seeking religious experience travel to Jerusalem at Eastertime, bringing with them the crosswinds of modern trends. Sometimes they must brave the risk of being caught in the crosshairs of the Jewish-Arab conflict.

Between Christian Easter (April 7) and Greek Orthodox Easter (April 14), the number of visitors often peaks. About one-quarter of the 2 million visitors to Israel are "pilgrims," according to the Israel Tourism Ministry, and the vast majority of those are Christian.

"When you get home and go to church you realize the value of having been here," says Hilary Marks of Belfast, Northern Ireland, on her second pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

This year, the pilgrims' progress was set back by a recent spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and the closing of the West Bank. Many tours were cancelled.

But ever since Israel's founding in 1948, the conflict between Arab and Jew has altered the pattern of pilgrimages. The original site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River was out of bounds for decades as a result of the hostilities between Israel and Jordan. During the Palestinian uprising known as the intifadah (1987-93), the Mount of Olives was regarded as risky, so guides shifted their tours to nearby Mount Scopus.

The Mideast peace process has led to more Christian pilgrims from Egypt and other parts of the world. And a recent peace with Jordan raises the prospect of an influx of Muslim pilgrims to the Jerusalem holy sites of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, which were once a stopover for pilgrims traveling to Mecca from the Far East.

Peace could also lead to Israel becoming the hub of more adventurous pilgrims taking in Biblical sites in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Greece.

The main pilgrimage sites today are Jesus's birthplace at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity; his crucifixion, burial, and ascension site at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the annunciation in Nazareth; and his deeds and teachings on the shores of the Galilee.

About 75 percent of Christian visitors are in the category of pilgrimage tourism, says Randy Smith of the Jerusalem-based Christian Travel Studies Program. About 17 percent are ministers and students of religion, and about 8 percent are specialist study tours exploring specific aspects of the Bible.

Ruth Youngman from Britain, who now works as a volunteer among Christian Arabs in Jerusalem, says she first visited the Holy Land as part of a tour following the footsteps of the Biblical prophets. "I became interested in praying for Israel, and I decided to come here to work and pray," she says.

In the past decade, the number of pilgrims wanting specialized study tours has grown significantly - particularly with the growth of the charismatic churches. "They need hands-on, touch-and-feel experiences. They want to fish in the Galilee and share in the Last Supper," says Mr. Smith.

Jim Fleming, director of the Biblical Resources Studies Center in Jerusalem, pioneered such tours over the past 20 years, based on his studies of links between the Biblical text, historical geography, and Biblical history. He has created a Scripture garden on the slopes of Tantur overlooking Bethlehem, which offers archaeological reconstructions of subjects from the Biblical world, such as crucifixes, and a Last Supper meal served in an authentic Roman villa.

Betsy Milsteen, an Anglican (Episcopalian) living in the United States, says she had joined a 10-day prayer tour of the sites where Jesus had prayed. "We read the scriptures and then devoted ourselves to contemplative prayer. For me the prayer was so special. He spoke to me at every site."

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