Christianity endures in the Holy Land

Visitors from Russia may top U.S.

Published: Saturday, April 23 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

In front of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a sign in Arabic proclaims "Allah has no son."

Russ Jones

JERUSALEM — It's spring in Israel, just weeks before Easter Sunday. On hilly terrain right outside Jerusalem's Old City, the sunlight is filtering through berry-tree branches as chirping birds warble gay ditties on the grounds of the Garden Tomb.

Not far from the sepulcher where tradition holds that Jesus' body once lay, a couple of dozen African Christians stand in concentric circles as they clap and sway and sing soulful songs of adoration. On the other side of a footpath a British congregation intently listens to its pastor's sermon, quietly seated beneath a large tree's shady refuge on carefully arranged rows of pews.

The two groups have come here — the place where many Christians believe Jesus was buried and subsequently resurrected — for precisely the same reason: to worship on hallowed ground.

Without warning, a hailstorm of noise suddenly shatters the peaceful ambiance. The six-times-a-day Islamic call to prayer, synchronously blaring from five mosques within earshot, audibly assails the Garden Tomb in Arabic for about two minutes.

The British pastor folds his arms, purses his lips and furrows his brow while waiting for the loud sounds to abate before proceeding. The Africans, though, just keep on singing.

This scene and the ones like it that play out every day in Israel illustrate the ever-present religious tension in the Holy Land as a benign-but-vigilant Jewish state tolerates the continued existence of Muslim and Christian minorities. But more than that, the snapshot from the Garden Tomb effectively captures the reality of Christianity in the Holy Land: a diminished vestige hemmed in on all sides but still enduring because of its timeless tourist appeal.

This is the irony of life in the Holy Land: Christian pilgrims are coming to Israel in record-breaking numbers even while the percentage of Christian residents in the region has never been lower.

Indeed, at no time in history have Christians flocked to Israel in greater numbers than they do now. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism estimates that a record 2.38 million Christians trekked to the Holy Land in 2010 — about a fourfold increase from the almost 600,000 Christian pilgrims of 2005.

Several factors fuel the upward trend. First of all, the political atmosphere within Israel has sufficiently cooled since the bloody Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Tourists generally no longer fear for their safety in the Holy Land even as unrest roils the Middle East in places like Libya, Egypt and Syria. When a bomb detonated at a Jerusalem bus stop on March 23 — killing one and wounding 39 — it was the first lethal terrorist bombing in the city since 2004.

Another cause of the uptick in tourism is the fall of communism that continues to reverberate in Eastern Europe. Now that the public practice of religion is no longer frowned upon in the former Soviet nations, Orthodox Christians from those countries are coming to Israel in droves. In fact, Russia is all but certain to overtake the U.S. in the next year or two as the country sending the most tourists to Israel every year.

And it doesn't hurt that the Israeli government's longstanding zeal for cultivating a hearty tourism industry remains intact.

"We believe that whoever arrives to Israel will find the land of the Bible," said Eliezer Hod, director of tourism for Israel's Los Angeles consulate. "They are able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, go where Jesus claimed to make all these miracles and follow all the places where the ministry of Jesus occurred. It's the cradle of Judeo-Christian civilization; whenever someone arrives there he immediately understands the Bible better."

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