07/13/2010, 00.00
HOLY LAND

More pilgrimages to the Holy Land “due to pilgrims from Asia,” says Fr Pizzaballa

The first half of 2010 sets a new record. More than a million pilgrims or 39 per cent more than a year before come to the Holy Land. For the Custodian of the Holy land, the increase strengthens local Christian communities.
Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – Religious tourism to the Holy Land has hit a record level. In the first half of 2010, more than a million people have visited holy sites in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. In June alone, 259,000 pilgrims made it the Holy Land; that is 24 per cent more than in 2009, this according to Travelujah, a Protestant social network that monitors travel to the Holy land. It recently reported that tourism to Israel has reached an all-time high with 1.6 million tourists; two-thirds of them are Christian, a 39 per cent jump over the same period last year.

“I confirm the data and expect the numbers to rise in the coming months,” Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, told AsiaNews. “Interest in the Holy Land is rising again,” said the Franciscan, and “the rise is due to pilgrims coming from Asia, in particular India.”

“This is very important to [local] Christian families and communities,” he explained. “One of the most serious problems for us is the lack of jobs. There are so many Christians employed in tourism that more pilgrims means more jobs. In Bethlehem, five new hotels are under construction.”

This also means a lot for the Church in the Holy Land. “Today, pilgrims do not visit only the holy sites. They want to know Christian communities, which are fragile and weak. This way, they have an opportunity to develop relations that strengthen them.”

There are different reasons for the increase in pilgrimages, Fr Pizzaballa said. “I am no prophet, but there have been no reports of attacks and violence in Israel. The Pope’s visit and support by national bishops’ conferences have been important in encouraging visits. Finally, the government has adopted some measures that have reduced costs and made travel more accessible despite the economic crisis.”

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