Wednesday, June 1, 2011

SNRAS professor shares Holy Land pilgrimage

By Professor Glenn Juday

Travel and tourism is a major, and in many ways, growing component of natural resources management. Interestingly, the deepest roots of tourism are found in pilgrimages, or organized mass movements of people to sacred or holy sites. The very term “recreation” grew out of the concept of re- creation or the restorative effects of a period of time away from ordinary responsibilities and a break in physical routine. The motivation for pilgrimage is this same restorative goal, but applied to the relationship between the human person and the sacred or divine. In upcoming blog posts I will give a series of observations on the organization and functioning of a Christian pilgrimage in the Holy Land of today, and some of the places and issues associated with managing it. The pilgrimage tour I am blogging about is led by Steve and Janet Ray, and videos are posted from each day’s activity.

Most of the holy sites of interest to Christians, because of their mention and key role in the Bible, are within the modern state of Israel or territory it controls, although a number of others are in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and to a lesser extent Turkey. The two entities that manage the greatest number of sites are (1) the state of Israel, through its antiquities authority and national park and reserve systems, and (2) the Catholic Church, which has assigned custody to churches and sites to the Order of Saint Francis (Franciscans). The Franciscan responsibility is referred to as “the custody” or “custos.” Others with significant roles are the ancient Christian churches such as the Greek Orthodox and Apostolic churches of the East, a few Protestant bodies such as Anglican and Lutheran Churches, and in Jerusalem a whole array of Christian groups, sometimes in shared custody.

Christians of the Middle East are a relatively small minority, but have been continuously present from the emergence of the Church as a movement within Judaism. In the modern state of Israel the ethnic/cultural background of the 7 million citizens (those with Israeli passports), are made up of about 81 percent Jews and about 18.5 percent Arabs, with the small remainder made up of a number of groups. The overwhelming majority of Christians in the Holy Land is from the Arab population. Of the 18.5 percent of non-Jewish Israeli citizens, 17.5 percent are Muslim, and 1.5 percent Christian.

The Arab populations of the Gaza region and the West Bank total several million. These areas were conquered by Israel from Egyptian and Jordanian control in 1967, and are the subject of long-running political and territorial disputes with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have renounced any claim of sovereignty over the Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab population is partially autonomous, although much control is maintained by Israel. So, some Holy Land sites are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. A century ago, nearly 50 percent of the Arab population of the Holy Land, including the area today called the West Bank, was Christian. The Christian proportion has been reduced considerably by relatively slower population growth rates and by out-migration. As in many regions with strong economies and substantial social organization, the state of Israel hosts an unknown and probably growing number of non-legal residents. This “shadow” population includes numbers of Christians, and it appears to be increasing modestly.

Since the time of Christ, the Holy Land has experienced a number of drastic, and usually violent, changes in polity (over-arching social and political order). These conquests and revolts along with the long, long history of continuous human occupation have produced a landscape with one of the densest concentrations of archeological sites in the world. Managing these areas requires literally recovering history, and especially lost history. The simplest building project in Israel triggers an immediate archeological review. Natural resource management in this land often consists of managing the setting of archeological and historical sites.

The key events of Jewish life and history are chronicled in the Bible up through the Greek conquest in 333 BC and the successful Maccabean revolt in 164 BC that ultimately resulted in a local Hasmonean dynastic rule. Roman subversion and seizure of control of Judea took place in 63 BC. Two major Jewish revolts, from 66 – 70 AD and in 135 AD, were crushed with much loss of life, and led to the forced dispersion or slavery of much of the Jewish population of the major cities. Jerusalem was quite literally destroyed in the fighting in 70 AD. The Christian minority largely took refuge before these disasters, and then dispersed or returned to an altered land. During these upheavals parts of the rural populations, Jewish and Christian, were left in place. So there remained some potential for direct historical continuity at Christian pilgrimage sites although some was ruptured.

When Christianity was tolerated, and shortly after was favored, by the Roman Empire in the early 300s, a number of churches and shrines were built on the sites of events in the life of Christ. The was little or no need to search, especially in the villages and rural areas of the Galilee district, since the families, buildings, roads, and fields were largely the same as in the first century. The events of the Gospels and the history of the earliest church, recorded by the scholarly Greek physician Luke in the Book of Acts, provided a clear and reliable framework. But the memory of events and places in the life of Christ were perpetuated by the indigenous Christian populations of continuous presence, steeped in a largely oral culture and provided with an historical account that Luke says he “carefully investigated.”

As an example, on the pilgrimage I am blogging about, I have literally walked on mosaic floors of a 4th century Church that was built over a site that geographic features alone (Tabgha – Arabic corruption of the Greek word Heptapegon meaning “the seven springs”) essentially require it to be the place mentioned in the Christian scriptures. The church at Tabgha has only been rebuilt in the last century following destruction in 640. Yet the available record indicates that local people venerated the site within a year or two of the Crucifixion.

The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire assumed control of most of the land that is today Israel in325 AD until 640 AD, when the Persian conquest destroyed, by policy, nearly all Christian religious shrines and churches. The early Muslim and Arab period lasted from 640 until 1009 AD, when the First Crusade, which essentially represented an armed pilgrimage, conquered the Holy Land. Events that precipitated the Crusade included mistreatment of Christian pilgrims, and events such as the destruction of basilica and outer structures of the Tomb of Christ by soldiers under orders from an unstable caliph. After the depleted Crusader armies overcame the determined final defense of Jerusalem, they gave the customary treatment to a city that had offered resistance by killing on a large scale. Immediately after the conquest, the sites of earlier Christian churches associated with events in the life of Jesus were re-located, and new and mostly larger Churches were built over the ruins.

The great military leader Saladin provided the catalyst for the period of Mameluke (Muslim) rule beginning in 1291, followed by Ottoman (Turkish Muslim) rule from 1516 to 1918. The British administered the Holy Land from 1918 to 1948, when the United Nations plan for an Arab and Jewish partition of Palestine was approved. Immediately subsequent conflict resulted in borders along cease-fire lines, which regularly are in the headlines of today.

Land use in the Holy Land has undergone drastic changes, especially in the past century. One of the most noticeable changes is that the sustained heavy grazing pressure of sheep, goats, and other livestock typical of the late Ottoman period has diminished or been eliminated, modern agriculture emerged, and forest cover established, with considerable benefit to erosion control, water collection and regulation.

Unfortunately, tensions, grievances old and new, and the ever-present potential for violence persist. But somehow a modern economy, expansion of well built urban centers, widespread ecological restoration, and a gradually increasing mass of clear archeological data and history are have all emerged in the Holy Land, as contradictory as it all may seem. And, in amidst the swirling events, conflicts, and changes a significant number of the nearly 2 billion Christians of the world arrive in great numbers as they have (or attempted to) since the 3rd century to personally see and experience the land, sites, and environments they know from the words of their sacred scriptures.

Monday May 23
Catholic pilgrimage groups are usually organized at the level of a parish or diocese. A parish is a geographical territory served by a church community, and the term is derived from the ancient Roman system of local government. But pilgrimages are also organized by topic, spiritual theme, or common bond of the participants. Pope Benedict 16 and Pope John Paul 2 both made widely publicized pilgrimages to the Holy Land, with major positive benefits to spiritual harmony in the region. But since the 13th century, sustained mass pilgrimage has only been possible since the mid 20th century. Mark Twain describes the Holy Land in his travel book (Innocents Abroad – 1869) as a very lightly populated, disease-affected, and somewhat shabby backwater, and it basically was.

Our pilgrimage group is led by Steve Ray, a Catholic layman, author, and producer of a series of adventure-themed videos of the historical/cultural background of Christian sites. His pilgrimages focus on experiencing the historical sites and how they directly inform understanding of Christian scriptures, faith, and moral life in the Church. His regular travel and pilgrimage packages are called “Footprints of God” groups. He works closely with Israeli authorities and the local Palestinian Arab Catholic travel guides and businesses, a professional and economic specialty of that community. Our “Footprints” group is special because of the participation of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, including its co-founder Dr. Scott Hahn, an American biblical scholar, author, and speaker with an impact probably rivaled only by Bishop Fulton Sheen who had the number one rated television program in the US in the 1950s. One result is that our group is absolutely at the maximum of 120 people, and draws pilgrims from a wide background.

The gathering point for the Footsteps pilgrims is the El Al departure gate at JFK airport in New York. Thunderstorms delayed our arrival in New York, and the marginal flying conditions seem sure to strand some pilgrims. As I wander around the seating area, I spot the pilgrimage badges we have all been issued (a custom dating back nearly a millennium) and we introduce ourselves, and where we are from: Texas, a priest from Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York – the count builds up to about 15 states. Later I meet pilgrims from Australia (by way of South Africa), England (by way of India and France), Indonesia. The mental map gets filled in.

As we wait, a large group of Jewish high school students from Miami in matching T-shirts sweeps in and enlivens the place in their typical teenage way. Several rabbis arrive. A Jewish prayer group forms and is accorded respectful silence locally. Then an ambiguous call to board happens, the line forms, we board the plane. About 15 pilgrims don’t make the flight because of weather delays. The midnight departure is delayed further, but it becomes increasingly irrelevant as a greater and greater number of passengers fall asleep.

The night passes quickly as we race ahead of the clock heading east. We have “lost” most of the day of Tuesday May 24. As numbers of passengers stir, southeast Europe and the Balkan Peninsula appear below the plane, then Greece, the Aegean Sea. People stir, chatter stops, excitement spreads, and finally Israel is in sight.

(Professor Juday will post updates about his trip as time and internet access allow.)

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