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In advance of the coming Holy Week, the Religious Tourism Desk of the Israeli Tourism Ministry invited members of the foreign media to a background briefing on Christian tourism and the events of Holy Week, offering some unique interview opportunities with leaders of the Catholic communities in Jerusalem.
The meeting, which took place on March 28 around the Christian Quarter of the Old City, was led by Uri Sharon of the Religious Tourism Desk. He began with a general briefing on Christian tourism in Israel, followed by a short tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Sharon underlined the importance of pilgrimages to Israel, pointing out that tourism in the Holy Land had peaked in the last two years with some 3.4 million visitors in 2010 and 2011, 60% of which being Christians, and half of these coming as pilgrims or spiritual travelers. He emphasized how a pilgrimage to the Holy Land truly enables pilgrims to encounter and discover the "Fifth Gospel," learning the geography of the Bible, experiencing its landscape and nature, and in this process getting better acquainted with the human side of Jesus who lived, died and resurrected here in this land.
During the tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sharon led the group of journalists up the hill of Golgotha, where a Greek Orthodox liturgy was taking place, and then to the "Chapel of Adam" just below it, believed to be the tomb of Adam and Eve in Christian tradition. He explained how the fact that Christ's blood poured down onto the tomb of the first parents of the human race illustrated His redemption of all humanity from the very beginning, including all those who lived before the coming of the Savior.
After a brief historical overview of the Sepulchre, the group walked to the Latin Patriarchate, where they were received by Fr. David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel.
Fr. Neuhaus gave a fascinating overview of the complex historical and pastoral reality of the Church in the Holy Land: from the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in the mid-19th century to the establishment of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in 1955, to the pastoral challenge of the waves of Catholic immigrants settling in Israel in every generation - such as the thousands of Filipinos who came in the 1990s and most recently some tens of thousands of Eritreans.
The Patriarchal Vicar also spoke about his own Hebrew-speaking community and the particularities of a Catholic community in Israel praying the Church's liturgy in the Hebrew language. He underlined the points of contact between the Jewish and Christian liturgy, such as the link between the Passover Seder and Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, and the solemn fasting on Good Friday as reminiscent of Yom Kippur.
He also discussed some details of the coming program of Holy Week in Jerusalem, as well as some of the issues affecting the coexistence between the different Christian confessions in the Holy City. If the sharing of the holy sites sometimes causes difficulties and tensions, he said, there is also hope for greater cooperation and coming closer together in the future. For example, he indicated that there is a strong likelihood of adopting a common date for the celebration of Easter between the Catholic and Orthodox communities, beginning as early as next year.
The next stop was the Notre Dame Center just outside of the New Gate, where the group was welcomed by Fr. Juan Solana, Chargé of the Holy See. From the rooftop, with a stunning view of the city in the background, Fr. Juan told the group how despite the recent unrest in many countries of the Middle East, interest for the Holy Land remains high and tourism continues to thrive. He also mentioned a growing interest for the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, noting how he frequently receives requests from Christians who wish to participate in a Jewish Passover meal. This interest for the connection between Passover and Easter is especially relevant this year as the two feasts coincide - as in the Gospels - with Passover Eve falling on Good Friday.
The morning concluded when Fr. Eamon Kelly, Vice- Chargé of the Notre Dame Center, addressed the group. "Many pilgrims coming to the Holy Land feel that they can make the words of Psalm 87 their own: ‘every man was born here' - he said. "They feel that somehow their origins are here."
Fr. Kelly explained how Notre Dame Center, located in a place that used to be right in "no man's land," at the dividing line between the conflicting parties from 1948 to 1967, strives to be a place of peace and encounter for people from all sides.
This will also be the goal of the Magdala Center, currently being developed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the north of the country: to replicate the experience of Notre Dame as a place of encounter and peace. Fr. Kelly spoke of the hand of divine Providence as he told of the sensational discovery of a first-century synagogue right on the site where the construction of an ecumenical chapel had been planned.
With the culmination of the Church's liturgical year upon us, it is indeed time to rediscover the "Fifth Gospel" and to return to the place of our origins, following Christ through the last events of his earthly life in the very sites where they took place. A blessed Holy Week, and happy Passover and Easter to all!
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Ariel Ben Ami was born in Canada and is currently a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is fascinated by the Jewish roots of Christianity and enjoys writing about biblical and theological topics. He is the founder and director of Catholics for Israel, a lay apostolate dedicated to building bridges and fostering reconciliation between Israel and the Church.