Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Holy Land: Tourism, security, and religion

Latin Patriarchate Street in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem - sign in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The Latin or Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, supported by donations from around the world, is a major sponsor of schools, forums for dialog, and charitable activities for all people in the Holy Land.

By Professor Glenn Juday

Events of Saturday, May 28, continued (see previous post)

The Scale of Tourism

Everything about this part of the world is complicated, often controversial, and frequently debated. But two things are clear: (1) In both Israel and Palestine, tourism has grown rapidly and become a major economic factor, and (2) tourism is dominated by the religious theme. Unlike the Muslim hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), there is not a particular season for the travel, although the major Christian and Jewish feasts do generate peaks in visitation.

In 2010, the number of incoming tourists to Israel reached a record 3.5 million according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Foreign travelers to Israel contributed about $4.4bn to the national economy, compared with the 2009 figure of $3.3bn. Travel to Israel experienced 26% annual growth in 2010 compared to 2009. It is expected that the number of visitors to the country could approach 4 million in 2011. According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, 66% of tourists arriving in Israel in 2010 stated that the purpose of their trip was a pilgrimage, recreation, or an excursion. Only 32% were in Israel to visit friends and relatives or for business purposes.

Religious tourism is a competitive advantage in the market for Israel and Palestine, in contrast to the resort or recreation trade of even nearby areas such as Turkey or Cyprus. Publicity produced by the Israel Ministry of Tourism explicitly markets Israel as the Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center. Tourists from around the world have been flocking in. Russians have been coming in record numbers. For 2011 the ministry is focusing its marketing efforts for travel to Israel in the expanding Christian communities of India and South Korea and in the currently underrepresented market of Poland.

Steve Ray, middle with author, right, and Mary Beth Juday. The Israel Ministry of Tourism is funding a series of video productions on the Ray pilgrimage route to increase tourism in a targeted market.

Aboard the coaches Steve Ray announces to the Footprints pilgrimage group that he has just received an e-mail from the Israel Ministry of Tourism agreeing to fund the production of a series of 15 to 20 half-hour video segments based on his pilgrimage route. The ministry has been looking for ways to reach the Catholic market, and the projected series is secured for EWTN, the biggest Catholic television network (160 million television households in more than 140 countries—the largest religious media network in the world). The tradition of organizing Catholic pilgrimage groups at the level of a parish or diocese led by the local priest is so decentralized that the ministry is looking for tools to reach greater numbers of this audience.

According to news reports:
“Surveys carried out by the ministry among visiting tourists included a poll rating visitor satisfaction from one to five. Among the services receiving the highest marks were archeological sites (4.6), tour guides (4.4), airports and even security checks (4.3). The lowest marks went to cab services (3.8), stores and cleanliness in public areas (3.9). It should be mentioned that the issue of filth and neglect in tourism sites in many cities around Israel has just recently been brought up in the state comptroller's report.
Trash on streets, vacant lots, and other visible spaces is an issue in rural areas of Israel but not as much in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The issue is acute in many areas of the Palestinian Territories. Further growth in tourism is likely to be increasingly constrained by simple lack of hotel beds, bus and motor coach loading and unloading spaces, and publically accessible restrooms.

The Palestinian news agency Ma'an reports that tourism in the Palestinian Authority areas is also booming compared to recent years. In 2010 tourism accounted for an estimated 15% of the economic activity in the Palestinian administered areas, which was a 10% increase over 2009. It is estimated that tourism in the most recent year produced $885 million in revenue for the Palestinian administered areas. There are about 90 hotels and 40 hostels operating in the Palestinian territories, and destinations for tourists registered 2.7 million local visitors in 2010, double the number of visitors for 2009. When combined with the count of tourists who arrive from outside the Palestinian Authority borders (primarily day trips from Israel), the numbers reach about 5 million travelers.

The Palestinian Authority is particularly sensitive about Christmas, because the Church of the Nativity (site of Christ’s birth) in Bethlehem is one of its single biggest draws, and guarantees a huge live global television audience. Recently initiated Christmas commemorations and festivals in Israeli-controlled areas are seen as infringement on the proper venue and market. Official Palestinian statements steadily protest Israeli occupation/control, of course, and in particular point out how it is detrimental to the local tourism industry. Of particular concern are the established tourism features and facilities in east Jerusalem, including Bethlehem. And our pilgrimage group is headed there now.

Through the Security Fence

The Israeli government calls the wall structure, towers, observation points, intrusion-prevention fencing, tracking zone, and patrols that divide the Israeli-controlled territory (whether internationally recognized Israeli territory or not) from Palestinian Arab-administered territory the Security Fence.

It’s an integrated system made up of all these elements, depending on the setting and perception of threat. In the dense urban area of Jerusalem the separation barrier includes a continuous solid wall.

Wall section of the separation fence on the main road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, taken from the Palestinian side.

Two points about the barrier or fence are objectively verifiable. First, the barrier has been effective in halting a concerted campaign of mass murder by bombing against the population in Israel. Second, the existence, placement, and operation of the barrier profoundly and negatively affect the life of Palestinian people. Beyond those facts, the debate begins. Where does the Catholic Church stand in all this? Obviously it would be extremely helpful to either side to have such a large organization support their position.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization, states:
“The Roman Catholic Church['s] official statements strive to be diplomatically balanced and defend the interests of both parties in the conflict.”
The Catholic Church’s position is that it advocates justice and peace, is not a party to any particular factional or partisan goal, recognizes a responsibility to provide practical assistance to all those in need, attempts to represent the legitimate interests of the communities in which it finds its members, and in particular it is responsible for supporting the Christians of the Middle East. Our pilgrimage group is about to engage in a practical exercise in support of Palestinian Christians—by shopping.

Many businesses in the Palestinian territories that sell Christian objects and mementos have experienced a severe reduction in access to their long-term customer base because of the Fence. Steve Ray’s pilgrimage groups try to assist, essentially by carrying on as if the Fence wasn’t there. The pilgrimage tour schedule includes Palestinian destinations. The Israeli authorities who operate the crossings through the Fence can be very arbitrary. Occasionally the coaches will not be let through. No explanations. Creating hardships for people who are not a security threat is not an obvious concern and on a few occasions the results have been tragic, such as cases of people seeking medical care.

Our coaches slowly approach the gate through the separation wall on the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is within one of the Area 'A' zones of the Oslo Accords—full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, with entry forbidden to Israeli citizens. (See Wikipedia, Administrative Divisions of the Oslo Accords).

We stop. There is a parley up front. More waiting. Then we glide through a curving entrance. We are in Palestine.

Our first destination is Bethlehem New Store. In much of the Middle East, business relationships are built on personal relationships of reputation, integrity, and trust because the civil institutions are so weak. The brothers who operate the Bethlehem store have built their business on strong relationships with Christian pilgrimage leaders, a high quality line of products with minimal kitsch, and reliable financial services. There is even the tax angle—the Palestinian sales tax is significantly less than the Israeli level. Not all rivalry and competition in the Middle East is negative.

Members of our Footsteps pilgrimage group now have a couple of hours to shop for the folks back home. There is an abundance of olive wood items, many clearly the product of genuine craftsmanship. The Jerusalem Cross is available in great variety of forms and materials. The most striking items are museum-quality olive wood tableaux of biblical scenes. I ask one of the proprietors how long it takes to produce one of these. He shakes his head with a smile and says that most of the artisans complete one to three per year. I wonder about the stocking of items with prices set at levels appropriate for this amount of work, and then I discover that priests and church staff or lay leaders are sometimes looking for items for their home parish, and so have brought a collective purse that may be equal to the challenge. The style of bargaining is a hybrid of Middle Eastern (individual item negotiation) and Western or global (store-wide discount) approaches. Some icons are exceptional, including genuine antique Russian icons whose route to this place must represent quite a tale.

The Christian presence today

The Catholic Church is well known for historical church buildings, and for sponsoring sacred art, music, architecture. But the Church reminds pilgrims that people are more important than the buildings in which the worship takes place. As a result the Church calls upon its pilgrims to maintain solidarity with and support the Christians of the Middle East. Who are these Christians?
“The great majority of Christians in the area are either Catholic or Orthodox. Most of the Catholics belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, a church of the Byzantine tradition whose patriarch resides in Damascus. There is also a sizable Latin-rite community under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. The local Orthodox Christians are part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It has possession of many of the major Christian Holy Places. It shares custody (with the Franciscans and the Armenian Apostolic Church) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, known to Greek Orthodox as the Church of the Resurrection. There is also a significant presence of Oriental Orthodox Christians, especially the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has a local patriarchate ... A number of smaller Protestant groups complete the mosaic of Christian churches in the Holy Land.”
Despite some real tensions and sore points between this diversity of Christians, relations between individual Christians are very good compared to some parts of the world. The common problems and challenges of being a disadvantaged or even targeted minority has stimulated a sense of greater unity. The leadership of these various Christian bodies and communities have begun to find ways of living together in the Holy Land in serenity and even starting to cooperate. In one sense the Catholic Church, as the largest and most international body, has a unique capacity to be a catalyst for dialog and to obtain financial resources. Nearly all of the many Catholic pilgrimage churches are well maintained, particularly in contrast to some of the historic Churches under shared jurisdiction.

Many people in the west speak of the “Roman Catholic Church.” Usually they mean all Churches in communion with the pope, who is the bishop of Rome. But this includes Eastern Rite Catholic Churches such as Melkite Greek or Ukrainian that originated with the Apostles but have distinctive traditions, administer themselves, and do not have Latin as their liturgical language. In the Holy Land and Middle East, members of the Roman or Latin Rite of the Catholic Church are generally called “Latins.” The Latin Rite Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem, currently Fouad Twal, has the title of Latin Patriarch, and a substantial number of the institutions, buildings, charitable and public works in Jerusalem are identified with signs as “Latin Patriarchate.”

Lunch at the Christmas Tree Restaurant

Christmas Tree Restaurant in Bethlehem, a short distance from the separation fence. Large tour group business is helping to keep businesses like this open, formerly dependent on access from Jerusalem.

By prior arrangement we have lunch at little cafĂ© with enough space for seating the group. In keeping with the city of Bethlehem’s theme, the place is called the Christmas Tree Restaurant. The name is an obvious play for the foreign tourists that formerly had free access from Jerusalem. Now it is literally in the shadow of the separation wall, and on the wrong side for the former clientele. It’s a perfectly ordinary eatery, but the enthusiasm with which the pilgrims spend their money and fill up the place brightens up the staff and proprietor. It’s so normal that it’s poignant, a small gesture of solidarity.

Basilica Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Sign describing the restoration project for the Basilica Church of the Nativity, the biggest tourist/pilgrim attraction in Palestine.

We load up the coaches to head to the Basilica Church of the Nativity. A modern and spacious parking garage relieves the narrow, sloping streets of Bethlehem of the burden of large vehicle blockages and congestion. Well equipped Palestinian security forces are present and the group moves out onto the street to walk the final distance.

The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The location is also accorded honor by Muslims. It was built over a cave which very early tradition holds as Jesus’ birthplace. The earliest available surviving identification of the site comes from Justin Martyr (b. ~100, d. 165). In his publication Dialogue with Trypho he says:
“Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.”
It’s another case of cave dwellings. It is easy enough to go on the Internet and find a passionately argued account, usually by an independent Christian preacher, of why the birthplace of Jesus had to be above ground, or not here, or some other variations. But the cave theme certainly is coherent: Jesus was born in a cave, naked and wrapped with a simple cloth (“swaddling clothes”), and after a life of never taking anything, at his death he was placed, naked, in a cave tomb with a cloth (the shroud) to wrap him.

Our Arab guides explain the phrase “… no room for them at the inn.” This is another case of weak translation into English. The word “inn” suggests to English speakers a commercial establishment of late medieval or early modern times for dispensing food and accommodating travelers. The actual word in the original Greek is kataluma meaning an “upper guest room,” a regular feature of most cave-associated houses of the time, not pandocheion, which would be closer to the commercial type. The lower cave levels were reserved for family livestock, which were a main source of wealth and kept close to the family for protection. Apparently at the birth of Jesus, because of the crowded circumstances (upper guest room was taken) and for privacy, Mary went to the stable to give birth because there was no room in the inner chamber.

The first basilica on the site was begun by Saint Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine I) with the supervision of the Bishop of Jerusalem in 327 and was completed in 333. The first church was burned down during the massacre of Christians at the time of the revolt of the Samaritans in 529. The current basilica was rebuilt, essentially in its present form, in 565 by the Emperor Justinian I (Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus), otherwise famous for the Justinian legal code still in use.

Of all the churches in the Holy Land, this was the only one not destroyed during the Persian (or Persian/Judean) conquest of 614. Why? The tradition is that the Persian commander saw a mosaic that depicted the Three Magi (“three wise men from the east” Matthew 2:1-12) in distinctive Persian clothing, and so did not wish to destroy it in case this site was somehow honoring his people. Further repairs and additions to the building were made during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century with assistance from the Byzantine Emperor. The first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. This is another of the shared custody churches, jointly administered by Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic delegates. The other two are the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem.

As recently the middle of the nineteenth century the great powers included control over the Christian holy sites as an item in their jostling for power. In particular, Imperial Russia claimed rights to represent the interests of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, including custody of holy sites. France, before the time of the strictly secular republican government, took the role of advocate for Catholic custody at the sites. The pressure was directed at the Ottoman Empire, the power in control of the Holy Land then. To avoid becoming a target for further manipulation, the Ottoman government adopted the “Status Quo” agreement on custody of the three holy sites in 1852, which is complex, but has been adhered to ever since. Rights and control at the sites are strictly assigned to defined Christian groups.

In general relations and contacts between the Christian communities governed by the Status Quo are cordial, but there are certainly strains. The past decades have seen ecumenical dialogue that has reduced, although not completely eliminated, historical conflicts. Today decisions about control and occupancy of the three holy sites are made by mutual agreement between the communities without direct external political interference, and with minimal government involvement. Regular meetings of the communities focus on optimization of scheduling the different worship services, and on restoration of the basilicas. The Church of the Nativity was placed on the 2008 watch list of the World Monuments Fund. Issues identified included rotting roof timbers, water infiltration and damage, risk of electrical fire, earthquake reinforcement. A Palestinian government restoration program is now underway.

Fourteen-pointed star at the Church of Nativity. Pilgrims can reach through the opening to touch the stone floor of the cave where early records and testimony claim that Jesus was born.

As we enter the nave of the main basilica and line up we are cautioned that silence or whispering only is enforced. Orthodox and Armenian clerics attend the entry to their administrative sections and frequently re-direct casual visitors or photographers out of those areas. We are very slowly, almost imperceptibly, funneled into a narrow entry that leads to an underground passage. Immediately there is a small altar with a marble slab under it. A silver fourteen-pointed star is embedded in the stone with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria a Jesus Christus natus est.”(Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary"). The fourteen points of the star are said to represent the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the birth of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17). Those sensitive to Biblical numbers will see that birth will initiate the seventh set of sevens. A center opening in the star allows the pilgrim to reach through to touch the original stone floor of the cave below. In the complicated jurisdiction of the site, this one altar and slab are shared. The Catholic Church has custody of another altar in the grotto marking the traditional site where Mary laid the newborn Jesus in the manger.

To accommodate the need for worship areas given the reality of the control of space that evolved, in the late nineteenth century the Catholic Church constructed the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria attached to the Church of the Nativity. A narrow stairway from there leads down into several caves and rock-cut chambers that contain several chapels. One of these is popularly identified as the room in which St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the Latin Vulgate, starting in the year 384.

Shepherd’s Field Church and Cave and Chapel

We load up the coaches and head to the outskirts of Bethlehem. As the roads east of Bethlehem descend, they wander through the Christian village of Beit Sahour. The fields at the edge of the village are the place traditionally identified where the shepherds saw the star on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-10). There are Greek Orthodox and Franciscan sites proposed to be the location of the event, and both places have had churches and monasteries since the fourth century. This may not be an event with the discreet coordinates of some others. This is also the area where the biblical women Ruth and Naomi gleaned in the fields behind the harvesters on their way to Bethlehem from Moab (Ruth 2-4). Ruth married Boaz, and they became parents of Obed, who was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David, who was born in Jerusalem. Bethlehem became known as the "City of David" and the prediction was that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:1-5).

Overhang shelter cave with a constructed wall entrance at the Franciscan Shepherd’s Field Cave Chapel. The cave is prehistoric and used by shepherds well before recorded history. The site has been used as a chapel since at least the fourth century.

After the line-standing and close quarters of the Church of the Nativity, the pleasant, park-like atmosphere of trees and grass and space at Shepherd’s Field is most welcome. It’s still hot though, and entering a cave or overhang with full shade seems to be a normal reaction. The broad opening of one of the overhangs has been walled off and the interior carved out to make a chapel. Surprisingly, the entire group of 130+ fits within it. The ceiling is covered with a thick layer of soot, reflecting many, many years of campfires, then candles and incense. With the large number of bodies in a relatively small space, the temperature starts to climb.

Supper at Samer’s

The Footprints Pilgrimage group has arranged dinner at Samer’s restaurant. We’re joined by Raji, another local Christian, who serves as the local professional travel agent for Steve Ray—arranging hotels, drivers, guides, Mass schedules. He is a Lutheran and the son of a Lutheran minister. Samer’s is a venue for an interesting talk by Dr. Scott Hahn. He was trained as a Protestant minister before becoming a Catholic theologian, and his personal trajectory has been the springboard for him to approach his theological writing and teaching in a unique way. Now comes an excellent lamb and rice dinner, accompanied by two complementary glasses of wine. The evening ends with some local music and an invitation for the visitors to try an Arab dance.

The mood is festive. A certain solidarity starts to emerge. Solidarity against the disorder and gangs that prey on the local Christians, against the discrimination they experience in their daily lives, against the restrictions in movements that hem them in, against the indifference of the governments that have built a peace process focused intently on most other groups in the region for decades but not this one, against even the seeming indifference of Christians in the rest of the world. Of course, a life free of commitment is also largely devoid of meaning. Conversely, those whose commitments entail the greatest hardship live lives that seem to really matter.

Back Through the Separation Fence

In the early evening darkness our coaches approach a crossing through the separation fence and stop. This one is not routine, as the entry was. There is a brief conference up front. The Israeli guards look things over carefully. Finally two of them, one male and one female, come aboard and walk down the aisle, performing a count. They have good weapons discipline, with the muzzles of their automatic weapons pointed down, trigger finger parallel to the barrel at the top of the trigger guard so that they can move safely, and yet deliver a high-power round very quickly if they feel they need to. The pilgrimage group is completely silent, mostly looking forward, hands still. The female looks a bit self-conscious. The guards exit, and one calls out to the other in American English, “See, I told you they were all there.”

A Knight is Presented His Shell

Dr. Scott Hahn, Member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, receiving pin in the form of a shell, sign of completion of a pilgrimage, from Jerusalem Bishop William Shomali. One of the main goals of the Order is to provide practical assistance to Christians in the Holy Land, which often involves travel business and services.

As we arrive back at the Notre Dame guesthouse, we assemble in the Chapel for a special ceremony. Dr. Hahn is a knight, a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. The auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, William Shomali (born in Bethlehem), is to present him with his shell, the traditional insignia that indicates a member of the Order has completed his or her pilgrimage in the holy land. What is this organization of knights all about?

“The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is the only lay institution of the Vatican State charged with the task of providing for the needs of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and for all the activities and initiatives which are necessary to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land. The contributions made by its members throughout the world are therefore the Patriarchate's institutions' main source of funding.
The Order's support for the Christians in the Holy Land does not just take the form of financial contributions and prayers, … (but also) formal pilgrimages, in the course of which Members do not simply view and explore the Holy Sites, but also have the opportunity to meet the people whom they are supporting and assure them that they are not forgotten.”

Since the beginning of the twentieth century the Order has financed the construction of 40 Patriarchate schools in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and continues to provide part of the operating costs. About 19,000 students attend these schools, where on average, the enrollment is 60% Christian and 40% Muslim. Many leaders of the Moslem community were educated in the Patriarchate's school system. The goal is to get people of different races and religions used to living in peace and mutual respect, so that tolerance and cooperation are encouraged from an early age in order to become a habit in adult life.

Bishop Shomali delivers an extremely fluent talk on the situation in the area, with a particular focus on the recent Vatican Synod of Catholic bishops of the Middle East. The Synod invited participation by other Christian representatives, Jewish leaders and a Muslim. The diagnosis of the problem is not a great surprise, but the determined call for greater cooperation and respect for the rights of all has a particular tone to it—as if they judge that it actually might be possible to move forward in some ways.

Confronting all the problems and the tensions of the Holy Land head-on is a chore. The ever-present neuralgic influence of the issues can be draining. All responsible people of good will know that they have to do it. But the weight of it all is like a set of chains that make every simple movement or action toward a harmonious society feel sluggish and restrained. Already, for this pilgrim group, the simpler-seeming life in the Galilee looks attractive. Already our experiences there are fading into memories—the quiet, the wildlife along the shore, the green uplands, sunrise over the lake, simple produce from the land. How hard it must have been, even at the purely natural level, for Jesus to leave Galilee and “… set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9: 51)

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