With Discovery of Ancient Church, Israel Banks on Christian Tourism

It may not qualify as a miracle, but an exceptional archaeological find in the Megiddo Prison in norther Israel could prove to be a tourism bonanza for Israel. “This finding may attract millions of Christian pilgrims to Israel,” Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson told JTA.

Through September, some 1.4 million tourists have visited Israel this year. In 2000, before the Palestinian intifada began, tourism reached an all-time high of 2.67 million visitors.

The archaeological find was impressive: Inmates at the prison uncovered the remains of a 1,700-year-old church during an excavation designed to clear the way for a new prison wing.

The mosaic floor decorated with Greek inscriptions, as well as remnants of an altar decorated with fish — a Christian emblem that preceded the crucifix — raises hopes that these are remains of “the oldest church in the world,” Hirschson said.

But can one develop a world tourism center within a prison compound?

“No, we’ll move the prison,” he said.

Noa Sher-Greco, who served as the Tourism Ministry’s representative in Italy, told JTA that the importance of religious tourism shouldn’t be underestimated.

“When I served in Italy, they displayed an exhibit with the supposed shroud of Jesus. Some 2 million people visited the place in two weeks,” she said.

Israel offers the Christian pilgrim a journey into the past that can’t be matched elsewhere. In addition to Megiddo — the biblical Armageddon, site of the projected doomsday conflict in the New Testament — pilgrims have no lack of historic sites.

A standard seven-day tour takes the religious tourist to Caesarea, capital of Judea under the Romans; Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth; the Sea of Galilee; Tabgha, site of the miracle of fish and loaves; the Church of Multiplication, with its fourth-century mosaic floor; Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; the Banias spring and waterfall, where Peter made his great confession; the Jordan River; and, of course, Jerusalem.

But there’s a catch: Christian pilgrims, especially Catholic, don’t consider the tour complete without a visit to Bethlehem, known as Jesus’ birthplace. For most of the past five years, Bethlehem, which is part of the Palestinian Authority, has suffered from lawlessness and violence.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry has set up a special coordinating body with the Palestinian Authority to reduce potential danger, but Catholics were among the first to begin avoiding the Holy Land following the outbreak of the intifada, dropping from 32 percent of tourists in 2000 to just 10 percent in 2003 and 12 percent in 2004.

Bethlehem often is cited as an example of Palestinian and Israeli tourism interests meeting: If Bethlehem reappears on the Mideast tourist map, Israeli hotels in Jerusalem will gain. In an effort to legitimize Bethlehem, the Tourism Ministry supported the Vatican-initiated Jerusalem-Bethlehem marathon, held in April.

“Until 2000, Christian pilgrimage to Israel was larger than Jewish tourism,” Sher-Greco, now head of the Tourism Ministry’s public affairs and information department, told JTA.

Those numbers have been climbing again as violence has ebbed, and last year 46 percent of tourists to Israel were non-Jews.

The only two groups that maintained a relatively steady flow of tourism during the intifada were Jews and evangelical Protestants.

Hirschson has initiated an evangelical prayer center — linked to the Rev. Pat Robertson — at the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Together with the inauguration of daily Delta flights from Atlanta, this will bring some 100,000 additional tourists to Israel each year, he said.

Another major force in promoting tourism during the intifada was the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. The organization was founded in 1980, as it says, “as an evangelical Christian response to the need to comfort Zion according to the scriptural mandate: ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

Hirschson is confident that Israel will meet its target of 2 million tourists in 2005, a rise of 25 percent from last year. He expects 3 million people in 2006 and 5 million by 2008, when Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary.

But that’s all subject to the security situation.

“Even if there’s a deterioration, I need to work as if the situation is good. Otherwise we lose the economic momentum,” Hirschson said.

Catholic tourism remains below pre-intifada levels, but it is rising again. Catholic pilgrimage from Italy increased by 74 percent this year, according to Tourism Ministry figures. Tourism from Spain increased by 142 percent to 37,000, tourism from Poland increased 167 percent to nearly 20,000 tourists and tourism from Portugal rose 194 percent to 6,690.

“The absolute figures may not be too impressive,” Sher-Greco said, “but the trend is there.”

Israel will receive another boost of Christian tourism as a nine-day tour of evangelical Christians begins this weekend.

Hirschson is not deterred by criticism of controversial evangelical preachers who visit Israel, or possible objections from fervently Orthodox circles.

“I’m not a theologian, I’m the minister of tourism, and I’m not interested in the politics of our tourists as long as they come here,” he said. “They come here as tourists, and they’re friends of Israel.”

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