CHRISTIANITY AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Preparations for the Jubilee Holy Land Pilgrimage
On the average about two million tourists visit Israel annually. By all estimates this figure will increase substantially during the millennium celebrations in the coming year. The Israel Hotel Association predicts three million visitors in 2000. The Israel Tourism Ministry expects four million. The Vatican, however, is hoping for six million.
There are, of course, differences between vacation tours, study tours, and pilgrimages. The latter will be most prominent during the coming year symbolically commemorating 2,000 years since Jesus' birth. Among American denominations, Catholics are expected to dominate the pilgrimage scene.
JUBILEE YEAR PILGRIM GUIDELINES
It is thus appropriate that the National Council of Catholic Bishops has issued "Holy Land Pilgrimage Guidelines for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000" -- with suggestions that may be helpful to Christians of all stripes.
"The Great Jubilee is a special time of spiritual journey for Christians," the Catholic document begins. "Pilgrimage may mean embarking on a journey of prayer; accompanying the poor, the oppressed, the refugees in their times of trial; visiting local holy sites; and countless other acts of faith. For a great many American Catholics, the celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ will mean going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land."
Many of the 24 guidelines deal with the spiritual component of pilgrimage, the need for trained leaders, opportunities for prayer and sacraments and with practical considerations, including the encouragement to support Christian businesses and travel agencies. Four pages of addresses for various offices and agencies are included.
Guideline number 23 may have the most far-reaching significance, since a major criticism of Holy Land tours today is the manipulation and misrepresentation by guides and tour operators who want to restrict the visitors' experience.
"If your guide does not want to enter certain areas, inquire about reasons," suggests the document. "Has there been a recent disturbance? Is a disturbance expected today? Be aware that some guides will be averse, solely for ideological reasons, to entering some areas. If a pattern of comments seems to suggest that this reluctance is ideologically based, consult with his superiors, CRS [Catholic Relief Services Millennium Outreach Office] or the Pontifical Mission, or with local Christian leaders for advice. While not taking unnecessary risks, the religious goals of the pilgrimage, including solidarity and reconciliation, would suggest crossing over boundaries when possible."
Consistent with this practical word of advice, six other guidelines encourage pilgrims to seek solidarity with the local Christian community -- meeting with local parishes, being attentive to the stories of the faithful, and learning about issues of justice and peace.
Pilgrimage, as defined in this document, is not a private or exclusive venture, but focuses on dialogue. Christians should also visit Muslim religious sites, such as the Haram al Sharif and the Al-Aqsa mosque and plan for meetings with Muslim groups.
"Visit a Muslim village and meet the people," recommends guideline number 18, "especially where Catholic Relief Services, the Pontifical Mission, or the Franciscans are sponsoring a project."
Likewise, "the spirit of dialogue especially recommends making serious efforts to come to know the life and aspiration of Jewish communities in Israel. Therefore, pilgrims should try to engage in interfaith dialogue with Jews" (Guideline 14). A number of agencies to facilitate such dialogue are listed.
Recognizing that pilgrimage traditionally has been seen as a time for healing and reconciliation by the participants, the document envisions that today's pilgrimage "can contribute to reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and the three monotheistic religions of the Holy Land: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. …