Holy Land Pilgrims: In Search of Living Stones

By Bush, Trudy | The Christian Century, July 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Holy Land Pilgrims: In Search of Living Stones


Bush, Trudy, The Christian Century


Medical personnel have long been aware of a strange form of hysteria that attacks some pilgrims to the Holy Land. "Jerusalem syndrome" manifests itself especially among American Protestants - people well rounded in the Bible - who suddenly shout prophecies or proclaim that they are Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist or some other biblical figure. More than a hundred cases are treated each year at a government mental-health center in Jerusalem. The director of the center believes that the syndrome is triggered by the pilgrim's encounter with a reality that is dramatically different from his or her prior image of the Holy Land. These tourists are disappointed and frustrated, and their reaction is to try and lift their spirits by losing control. They do things they wouldn't do elsewhere."

Most visitors maintain their grip on reality, of course. But many deal with the dissonance between the biblical land of their imaginations and the bustling, conflict-ridden place they actually encounter by distancing themselves from the contemporary reality.

Unfortunately, the standard tour to Israel can encourage such an approach by keeping visitors at a distance from the political, social and religious realities. It gives people almost no sense that an indigenous Christian community still flourishes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Many Christian travelers never meet any of the local Christians or worship with local congregations. Often they are not even aware of the churches from their own traditions in cities like Jerusalem. The groups stay in Israeli hotels and are led by Israeli guides who have a great deal of book knowledge about Christian holy places, but regard the Christian Holy Land as a kind of theme park.

Opportunities for visiting the Holy land are plentiful, especially for pastors, who can often receive a free trip in exchange for recruiting and hosting a certain number of people. Tour companies have these kinds of tour down pat: they are smoothly organized and easy to host. But in such tours the political and economic situation is presented entirely from the Israeli point of view. Tourists are told not to speak about political matters with the Palestinian shopkeepers and service workers they encounter. Tourists are often unaware that many of these Arab shopkeepers and bus drivers are fellow Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers and Episcopalians. And since tour members are discouraged from speaking with these Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, they learn nothing about their history or political and economic situation.

The frustration that indigenous Christians feel with such tourism is summed up by Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite priest who has founded a high school and a college in Ibillin, near Nazareth. "You Westeners have been coming to the Holy Land for centuries to visit the shrines, the dead stones. But you do not see the living stones - the human beings who live and struggle before your eyes. I say 'Wake up!' What matters are the living stones!"

As Palestinian Christians prepare for the time when they will be free of the Israeli occupation and have some control over their own land and tourist industry, they are working on plans for a new form of Holy Land tourism. Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian Christian who heads the recently formed Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), is working to develop an environmentally sound tourism that would protect the character of Palestinian villages. The more than 800 small villages that dot the countryside of the West Bank were founded 500 to 800 years ago and still retain much of their ancient character. Here, Andoni says, people can experience a way of life no longer available in the Western world.

Andoni proposes to build small, comfortable hotels and open good restaurants, coffee shops and museums in such villages. Tourists can then visit the Holy Land's major religious and historical sites during the day and return to traditional village life in the evening. …

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