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Israel's Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov, sent a letter today to the Chilean miners inviting them and their spouses to visit the Holy Land this Christmas.
"Your bravery and strength of spirit, your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth, was an inspiration to us all," he wrote. "It would be a great honor for us to welcome you as our guests in the Holy Land. This December, Christians around the world - and here in the Land of Jesus - will celebrate Christmas. During that time, we welcome tens of thousands of pilgrims and we would be pleased to offer you this uplifting and extraordinary experience, as our guests."
According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the weeklong tour will include guiding and visits to the most important Christian holy sites. While the specific itinerary is not yet planned, it is possible that Bethlehem, where the Church of the Nativity is located, and within the Palestinian Territories, will be on the roster of sites to be visited.
As a country Chile is very Christian, approximately 87% of the population, or almost 15 million people are of the Christian faith. According to interviews with many of the rescued men, that faith played a very important role in their survival. One relative was quoted as saying that the rescue was "A miracle from God." On one of the many videos of the rescue one miner upon exit from the capsule got on his knees and prayed and held up his arms. Another said "I met God. I met the devil. God won."
It is truly a blessing, a miracle, that these men survived. Each year on Hanukah, Jewish people worldwide celebrate the fact that a little bit of oil lasted 8 days and the words "Nes Gadol Haya Po" or a Great Miracle Happened Here - are visibly seen around this country. This year, however, a great miracle happened in Chile - and all of us here in Israel are very excited about the opportunity to celebrate this Christmas with these brave men and their families here in Israel and possibly in the Palestinian territories as well. We hope they will accept the invitation and travel here.
Mario Gomez, knelt down in prayer, even before hugging his wife. Mario Sepúlveda was quoted as saying "I was with God, and the Devil - and God won." Omar Reygadas, a 56 year old mechanic emerged from the rescue capsule holding a bible and wearing a helmet with "God lives" written on it. All of the 33 miners emerged from the capsules wearing shirts that said, "Thank you Lord" on the front, and with the back reading "To Him be the glory and honor," taken from Psalm 95:4. "Because in his hands are the depths of the earth, and the heights of the mountains are His."
Chilean Miner, Mario Gomez, kneels in prayer immediately after rescue. Courtesy Hugo Enfante AFP Getty Images
On Wednesday October 13, 2010 the last of the 33 Chilean miners were shuttled 15 minutes through a dark shaft emerging at the surface to be greeted by friends, family and the worldwide media.
While most media reports downplayed it, faith clearly played a starring role in this story. From the beginning, the miners families set up a prayer area at Camp Hope where many prayed continuously for the miners. Crucifixes, bibles, rosaries and other religious articles were sent down to the miners and Pope Benedict XVI sent down a rosary to each man. One miner, Jose Henriquez , became the defacto spiritual leader, leading his trapped colleagues in daily prayer. Chile is an extremely religious country and over 70% of the population identifies themselves as Catholics, and 15% as Evangelicals.
Like others around the world, I too, followed this ordeal with a mixture of anticipation, hope, and fear. How would I feel if it were my husband trapped down there? Imagine the elation I would have if my beloved was granted a second chance of life? I would surely wish to give thanks to God for answering my prayers.
So - when that last miner was rescued on October 13th, I immediately sent off an email to Rafi Ben Hur, the Deputy General of Israel's Ministry of Tourism.
"Rafi - I want to create a joint initiative with the IMOT to bring these Chilean miners to the Holy Land."
Within moments Rafi replied, "More details, please."
And that's it how it all started. Within five minutes I wrote a short brief to Rafi explaining how I saw them proceeding and why this trip of all trips possible would be so important to them.
"I think we should begin by working thru the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have them connect us with the Israeli Embassy in Chile and we should offer a spiritually oriented Christian themed tour, provided by the State of Israel and flights thru ELAL - if possible. This is a very spiritual group of men - and God is very important in their lives. After this ordeal I cannot imagine them taking a more meaningful trip. .... . .We should get an invitation out now to the miners."
On the 14th I received this response from Rafi, "Your idea is rolling, I'll keep you informed".
Deputy General Rafi Ben Hur and Travelujah CEO, Elisa Moed
Three days later I received another email from Rafi, "Here are the results of your idea. We'll be in touch."
And he forwarded the yet to be published press release from Minister of Tourism Staz Misezhnikov stating that Israel was inviting the Chilean miners on a weeklong all expense paid pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
"Your bravery and strength of spirit, your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth, was an inspiration to us all," the tourism minister wrote in his invitation. "It would be a great honor for us to welcome you as our guests in the Holy Land."
Israel Minister of Tourism Staz Misezhnikov
I was obviously very proud to have initiated an idea that not only did our government quickly act upon, but will provide these men and their spouses the opportunity to experience a faith affirming journey to the Holyland that may very well be the most meaningful trip of their lives.
On November 10th, the media reported that the Chileans had accepted the invitation, despite the fact that many people urged the Chileans not to come.
Faith guided these men through a most stressful ordeal. What better way to celebrate that renewed faith than to come to the Holy Land where God's presence is uniquely felt? On behalf of all Israelis, I am very thankful that our government is sensitive enough to recognize that the pilgrimage experience that only we can offer is a most important blessing for these men.
Chilean miners arriving yesterday in Israel. Photo Courtesy: Yaron Brener, YNET News
The miners received many invitations to travel around the world after their nightmare but, according to the miners representative Jose Enriques, it was a privilege for them to come to place where they can be close to God and an opportunity for them to strengthen their faith in Jesus. They will visit holy sites in Israel over the next six days and will also be visiting Bethlehem, in the Palestinian Territories on Saturday.
Elisa Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah.com (http://www.travelujah.com) the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.