Christians are a tiny minority in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. They account for about 2 percent of the population. But Christian pilgrims are visiting the Holy Land in record numbers these days.
The Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George’s is built into a steep, tan cliffside in the Judean desert. The place dates back to the 4th or 5th century. Today, St. George’s is home to 10 monks. One is said to spend most of his time praying – or sleeping – in a cave nearby.
The site is also a popular destination for Christian pilgrims. One of them who gave her name as Dominique, stood in a chapel wearing a loosely-tied headscarf, with her hands folded and tears streaming down her cheeks.
“With the whole of my heart, with the whole of my spirit,” she said. “I am really excited and happy to be over here.”
“I’ve been crying,” she added. “I’m shaking and I can’t explain even that.”
And she’s far from alone. Last year, 3.5 million tourists visited the Holy Land. Two-thirds of them were Christians. The Israeli government, which controls the borders not only to the Jewish State but to the West Bank as well, sees real potential in faith tourism. And it’s reaching out to Christian pilgrims in a big way.
One of the most popular sites for Christians is Qasr al-Yahud. That’s Arabic for “Palace of the Jews.” It’s the spot in the Jordan River where Jesus is said to have been baptized.
The modern-day pilgrimage site sits in the middle of a minefield between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and the Kingdom of Jordan. In recent years, Israeli authorities have spent lots of money removing mines and renovating to make the place accessible to tourists, like Gordon Wong.
Wong is a Methodist pastor from Singapore. After baptizing several pilgrims, he climbed out of the waist-deep, greenish-brown water onto a newly built wooden deck.
“Before you get married, you already fall in love with the person you want to get married to,” Wong explained.
“So, you’ve already started that relationship, you already know. But the wedding ceremony is a public demonstration of that. You’re saying you’re not ashamed to be identified with this person. That’s really what baptism is. They already have this love of Christ. Now, they want to declare it to others and what better place to do it than here.”
The average tourist spent $ 1,700 each last year, according to Israeli statistics. That adds up to billions of dollars for the local economy. In a short interview, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov said the Jewish State wants to expand the Christian tourism market for financial reasons, obviously. But for another reason as well.
“Every satisfied tourist,” Misezhnikov said. “He becomes the ambassador of good will [for] the state of Israel. It’s very important to us.”
That was evident during a Holy Land recent visit by a small group of American Evangelical pastors and broadcasters. One of the Israeli officials who met with the group was the Minister for Public Diplomacy, Yuli Edelstein.
“We are very glad that you are here and that you can see things and talk about things,” Edelstein said.
Pastor Joseph Davis from High Point Church in Dallas, Texas told me his visit to Israel was not just about faith, but about politics. Davis said he will go back home and tell Americans what he believes is really going on in the Holy Land today.
“It troubles me greatly to hear that Israel is still at the place of talking about giving away land,” Davis said. “I personally don’t believe that giving away more land is going to solve the issue.”
It is next to impossible to completely remove politics from a visit to this part of the world, according to Uwe Graber. He is the head of the German Lutheran Church for Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.
Graber said the growing number of Christian pilgrims coming to the Holy Land is tremendously good news for pilgrims and for their local hosts. But he said he tends to encourage visitors to focus on the spiritual rather than the political when they visit here.
“There are so-called fact-finding missions and often I have the impression that they have found their facts ahead, before they come and here they just want to reconfirm the facts they found ahead,” Graber said. “That’s not good.”
Visitors should really, make up their minds afterwards.
Graber said he also urges Christian pilgrims to do more than just visit the holy sites. He tells them to actually meet the people who live here, especially people of non-Christian faiths… Jews, Muslims, Druze and Bahai. That, he says, makes for the most valuable kind of pilgrimage.