11/26/2004, 00.00
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Israelis, Palestinians jointly invite pilgrims to come back to the Holy Land

Israeli and Palestinian Tourism Ministers thank the Pope for urging Christians to visit the Holy Places. Since 2000, the number of Christian pilgrims has dropped by half.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – "Oded Ben Hur, Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See, told AsiaNews that the joint statement signed by the Israeli and Palestinian Tourism Ministers on Christian pilgrimages in the Holy Places was "a milestone of great importance on the path towards peace in the Middle East."

"We are organising another meeting in Rome," the Ambassador said, "between the two ministers in order to encourage tourism in the Holy Land." For him, the developing contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are a "good sign".

In their joint statement released on November 24, Israeli Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra, and Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities Mitri Abu Aita agreed that in view of the upcoming Christmas festivities, "both ministries will cooperate in promoting tourism to the Holy Land and take effective measures to assure the safe and smooth passage of pilgrims and tourists visiting Israeli and Palestinian areas". They also agreed to "create the appropriate atmosphere in terms of traffic to assure the best services for tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land".

Both ministers said they were "very grateful" to Pope John Paul II for "his message to the General Assembly of Italian Bishops urging pilgrims to visit the Holy Land".

In their statements, the two ministers stressed that "tourism is not only a major economic force and an important tool for [a] nation's prosperity, but also a means of bringing peace and building bridges of confidence between peoples of the Middle East".

Recently, Christian leaders from different denominations present in the Holy Land had made a joint appeal to Christians around the world to come back to the Holy Places. According to Mgr Pietro Sambi, Vatican envoy in Israel, pilgrimages are "a spiritual and material encouragement to the small Christian communities" that dot the Holy Land.

Tourism has traditionally been one of the main sectors of Israel's economy but has been hard hit by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second intifada has cost it US$ 12 billion. Tourism has dropped by 60 per cent and 40,000 of 180,000 tourism-related jobs have been lost.

In 2000, Christian visitors represented 70 per cent of all tourists going to Israel. In 2001, that proportion dropped to 48 per cent; in 2002, it fell to 30 per cent.

In 2004, there were the first weak signs of recovery.  In the first six months of the year, Israel received a million tourists, a number expected to reach 1.5 by December representing a 54 per cent increase over 2003.

This year the number of Catholic pilgrims rose by 114 per cent over 2003 for a total of 78,000 visitors. The Holy Places also attracted some 66,000 pilgrims belonging to Reformed Churches and 72,000 from other Protestant denominations as well as 352,000 Jewish tourists. (LF)

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