Derek Vogt reflects on a recent visit to the Holy Land

In August 2001, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement exhorting Christians from all parts of the world to return to the Holy Land. He said that our (Christian) contribution to peace was to simply be there and to reassure Christians who live there. I link his comments to those of Amnon Lipzin, Director of the Israeli Tourism Office for the UK and Ireland. He spoke positively about the warmth of the welcome extended to all those who visit the Holy Land in that it really does combine a pilgrimage with a holiday for all time.

Accentuating the Positive

We are all aware of the current difficulties and the exodus of Christians who have lived in the Holy Land as well as the absence of tourists and pilgrims to the region. This is a matter of grave concern to those whose living depends so much on the pilgrim and tourist industry. It is an issue that affects both Muslim, Christian and Jew. The Archbishop, then, pleads with us to strive to inject positive news about the Holy Land and to seek to present a different view of life there opposite to the one often depicted through western news. Those of us who have visited the Holy land over many years, and more recently know the need for this only too well. The place is not full of bombs, indeed the streets of Jerusalem are as safe as any western city. So, whatever the politics and the pros and cons of the current political situation as in any area of great conflict and injustice, the vulnerable and the powerless, those who desperately want to work to earn their keep, are the most affected and this applies to all sides. One Jewish shop manager commented to me that he thought western news was so negative, overriding the fact that there are so many good things happening within his local community. These are the things which are rarely portrayed. He went on to say ‘look around you – we have no tourists and no pilgrims. That is bad for all of us.’ So there are serious issues affecting all sides – tourism, travel agencies, hotels, restaurants. There are employment issues that affect the many guides; there are those who provide tour companies with transport; those who have coaches on a loan basis and are now so limited for work that they cannot afford to pay back the loans. Consequently, what support can they give to their families? In east Jerusalem alone, I am told that there are at least seventeen hotels now closed; others struggle and that does not include the larger hotels in wider Jerusalem. It does not take a great deal of imagination to realize the gravity of this situation with the inevitable knock-on effect this is having throughout the Holy Land.

Well come!

It is against this sorry backdrop, with initial apprehension, that we entered Jerusalem to begin our pilgrimage the week after the siege of Bethlehem ended. However, it goes without saying that we were both humbled and moved by the warmth and genuine openness of the welcome we received in Jerusalem generally, around the streets and at the Christian sites in particular, especially in the Old City. We were encouraged and surprised by the freedom of movement we had and so we were able to fulfill the itinerary that I had planned in both Jerusalem, Tiberias and Galilee. We were not sure at this stage whether or not we would be allowed into Bethlehem so soon after the end of the siege, but there was no problem, although the streets were deserted and there was a marked absence of armed soldiers. We entered the Church of the Nativity as well as St Catherine’s, both basilicas apart from our small group were deserted. There was no obvious evidence of what had taken place there and had been the focus of such news over the previous weeks. It was good, therefore to experience and feel the silence and awesomeness of the place of Christ’s birth. On the other hand, it was sad for the reasons for the silence, though its sacredness, to our view, overwhelmed what had taken place there. Nothing had been lost of the ambiance.

A swelling tide

I would like to think that our small Christian witness would be the start of a steadily growing flow back to the place. We were told that our coach had been the first for two years. I recall again the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words, ‘I think we can make our contribution to peace ourselves simply by being there.’ We were welcomed by shopkeepers sitting outside their closed shops as well as some hoteliers and we were exhorted by all of them to spread the message and bring people back. It was a cry from the heart and it was a just one.

I would encourage anyone of whatever denomination, who reads this article and is fortunate to find themselves in a position to visit the Holy Land to do so and to bring back to life what is in danger of being lost. There are so many spiritual treasures to be found for those who set out on this particular pilgrimage way to seek them. This should go some small way in helping to breathe confidence into a depressed people who, despite their difficulties, have not lost their warmth and friendship. In short, sign up and make 2003 the restoration year of the pilgrimage way to the Holy Land. We pray for all cultures and, above all, peace in the homeland of Jesus. The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem said, in a recent letter, ‘To whom do we turn? We have no-one to turn to except him who suffers and died with us, Jesus Christ, our Lord. For he alone can raise us up.’ And Jesus reminds us in scripture that he is with us to the end, so what is there to fear?

So let us take the Holy Land by storm in 2003 and if any reader of this article may be interested, I would be only too happy to provide you with the new itinerary as soon as it has been printed. Either way, our paths may cross in Jerusalem.