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."
But as Christian tourism grows, the relative population of Christians in Israel continues to wane. Two percent of Israelis are Christian, a figure that has declined 13 of the last 15 years. The shrinking ratio of Christians in the Holy Land is neither a recent development nor limited to Israeli borders. National Geographic reported in 2009 that within "present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories," native Christian communities "have dwindled in the past century from a quarter to about 8 percent of the population as the current generation leaves for economic reasons, to escape the region's violence, or because they have relatives in the West who help them emigrate."
Considering how few Christians live in the Holy Land today, it's easy to forget how deep Christian roots go here. In 313 A.D. Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and recognized what's now Israel as holy land. Although Muslims conquered the area in 638, Christians still remained present for hundreds of years thereafter. In the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the Crusades catalyzed the start of a long and steady exodus of Christians from the region that continues to this day by sparking anti-Christian sentiment from Arab Muslims because of the legacy of the Crusaders.
Jeff Chadwick knows all about the historic and present-day demographics of Christianity in the Holy Land. As Professor of Archeology and Near Eastern Studies for Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center, he has lived in Israel off-and-on for roughly eight years to work on archeology digs and teach university classes about the region's history.
"There are more Christians here than most countries in the Middle East because Israeli society tolerates them so well," Chadwick said. "The Christian community of the Holy Land is about evenly divided between the small minority of Arab Christians that are local to the land and other Christians that are foreigners living here in Israel serving in capacities for their churches or for their employers that need to have them here. Israel has a very small Christian presence. It's a Jewish state with a Muslim minority."
Ironically, the weight of Christianity's minority status is very apparent in Nazareth, the town where Jesus lived. Today Arabs are the majority population in Nazareth, and although the vast majority of Nazarenes are tolerant and civil, enough enmity toward Christianity teems beneath the surface to yield visible signs of discord.
On a bright morning last month, for example, a dozen American journalists rolled through Nazareth in a large touring van as guests of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Several journalists repeatedly requested that the group stop and disembark to explore the Church of the Annunciation, a Nazarene basilica situated where tradition holds that the archangel Gabriel informed Mary she would bear the Son of God. But the tour guide, who had granted every other request, uncharacteristically dismissed the suggestions without substantive explanation.
As the van passed by the Church of the Annunciation, it became clear why the tourism ministry, which does its best to cater to Christian tourists, wanted to avoid the spot. Prominently displayed in front of one of Christianity's most holy sites, a green-garnished banner with hunter lettering imposed over a celery background delivers two not-so-subtle messages: the declaration in Arabic that Allah has no son; and in English, "Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers."
Even in Jerusalem, the Garden Tomb also qualifies as a Christian tourist destination ensconced in a predominantly Muslim setting. Unlike the Church of the Annunciation, however, Garden Tomb director Richard Meryon feels zero tension from his Muslim neighbors.
"The Palestinians among whom we live," Meryon relates, "are actually very friendly and warm and forever congenially saying, 'Welcome.' "
For Meryon, it is the Garden Tomb's relationship with the Jewish government that is full of complications.
"Israelis are understandably zealous to guard the security of their land," he said. "They tend to be initially suspicious of any non-Israeli, but when they trust you they're just as warm (as the Palestinians). This is why they themselves call those Jewish people born here 'sabra,' which means prickly pear — indeed, prickly on the outside but sweet and juicy inside.
"The Israeli government tolerates places like the Garden Tomb because they are tourist sites focused on people who spend maybe just two weeks in the land. Israel sternly frowns on and would never permit any kind of proselytizing of or active ministry towards Israelis."
Last week, Palestinian boy scouts clad in khaki uniforms, red neckerchiefs and red-and-white shoulder tassels traced Jesus' footsteps from nearly two millennia ago on the Sunday before his crucifixion.
The minority Arab Christian group was taking part in an annual Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives and into the Old City through the Lion's Gate. Thousands of fellow Christians joinined in, including Chadwick, the BYU professor, and roughly 80 of his students studying in Jerusalem.
For Chadwick, the event was a big deal because it illustrates the continued interest Christians from all over the world have in the Holy Land. Indeed, large groups from Canada, Korea, the Philippines and Mexico all participated.
While some rites like the Palm Sunday tradition won't die as long as there are Christians in the Holy Land, the political stability of the Middle East is another matter entirely. Change is most definitely in the air: an autocratic Egyptian president of nearly 20 years recently resigned under heavy pressure from a tidal wave of persistent protests, a Libyan dictator in power for over 40 years is under attack by American-aided rebels, Iran's development of nuclear weapons marches forward, and Syria and Bahrain are mired in political turmoil.
What does a geopolitical sea change signify for Christians in the Holy Land? As long as lethal violence doesn't permeate Israeli borders, it doesn't mean much. Israel's political stability — and, by extension, a religiously tolerant Holy Land — could vanish tomorrow. But today, the Middle East's only functioning democracy and the region's most powerful army stabilize and sustain Israel.
So for now, the status quo in Israel continues and three major religions find ways to coexist despite inescapable differences and the accompanying palpable tensions.
"The great secret over here," Chadwick mused, "is that every day eight million people get up and manage to make it through the day with each other, mostly cooperating and not harming each other. That's the story that never does seem to get told in the media."