After groups, individual visitors can now enter Israel if they respect a strict health protocol. As of 6 November, people can stay overnight in Bethlehem. For Fr Patton, it is possible to get over the emergency; in fact, while the virus remains, now “it is manageable.” Religious tourists, especially Christians. make an essential contribution to the local economy.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more evident that "life is a pilgrimage" during which "we must rediscover the value of trust, of hope" that go beyond "death”, said Fr Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, speaking to AsiaNews.
People should “overcome the logic” of the emergency in order to learn to “live with” the coronavirus which at present seems more of a "pretext" to put the world on hold.
According to the religious, “the Holy Sepulcher is a place that, more than any other, exhorts us to overcome fear. Today, as we celebrate our dead, we can discover that there is no stronger antidote than the Risen Christ.”
After more than a year and a half of closures and restrictions, without tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land, Israel reopened its borders to individual travellers (if they are vaccinated), while it quickly proceeds to give a third dose of COVID -19 vaccine to its own citizens.
Small merchants and businesses in Jerusalem, as well as Bethlehem, Palestine, have been waiting for this moment after Israeli authorities recently authorised travel to the occupied territories.
In the past few months, “a small volume of domestic tourism has been reported,” the Custos said. What changed yesterday is the possibility “not only for groups, but also individuals to enter with a tourist visa.”
Of course, visitors will have to follow rules on vaccination, testing before and upon arrival, as well as a series of public health guidelines.
“Hopefully, there will be a gradual recovery in November,” boosted in December with “the entry of a larger number of pilgrims".
On Saturday, 6 November, it will also be possible to stay overnight in Bethlehem, which, according to Fr Patton, “has suffered more than others” during the pandemic.
Local Christians rely on religious tourism for their living, in particular "hotel owners, guides, restaurants" as well as those who make "small handicrafts, from rosaries to crèches”.
Lately, life “has been very difficult” because of the lack of income and relief. The same applies to the Custody, which “runs about 70 shrines with relative maintenance costs” without visitors.
This said, "we cannot live imprisoned by fear", even more so now, at a time, “when we do not want to die from a virus, but we authorise death by law” with euthanasia.
“I have been informed that hundreds of groups are waiting for a green light in Italy, Spain, the United States, and Mexico. Many agencies are contacting us, because they are ready to go.”
Before the health emergency, religious tourism was constantly growing.
“In 2016 80,000 came from the United States and 40,000 from Italy, rising to 160,000 and 80,000 respectively in 2019. In three years, the numbers doubled. Then come those from Indonesia, the fifth country in terms of booking Masses in places of worship.”
For the Custos, “people who received the third dose of the vaccine in August must be able to enter and have an experience of faith, without too many constraints. We must stop thinking as we did in March-April 2020, when the emergency was beginning.
“The virus is still around, but we are not in the same situation and it is manageable. It is necessary to change mindset because this virus will remain forever,” but this should not mean resorting to a state of emergency.
For Father Patton, pilgrims are an "element of stability" amid religious, social and political tensions.
“They allow a population that is mostly Jewish and Muslim to breathe a different air, and are radically different from tourists, because they have a horizon of faith that moves by looking at God and the people they meet.”