09/01/2016, 16.23
HOLY LAND
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Pilgrimages to the Holy Land as "act of faith and an essential resource for the Church"

Sobhy Makhoul, from the Maronite Patriarchate of Jerusalem, renews the invitation to visit the land of Jesus. So far this year, the number of visitors has dropped by 70 per cent. Economic crisis and fears of attacks have kept European (and Italian) pilgrims away. However, Christian pilgrims have never been subjected to violence and hold a "sacred dimension" for Jews and Muslims.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Pilgrimages to the Holy Land offer the local community "the chance to relive the mysteries of Christ's life" and see "the attachment and responsibility that come from living in the land of Jesus." For the Christian world, for those who come from outside, they become a journey of discovery "of the roots of the faith, of the places where Christ was born, lived and died,” said Sobhy Makhoul, from the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he noted that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land today is "an act of faith" and a great "existential, human and spiritual experience.” Indeed, "At a complex time characterised by major upheavals, wars and violence, a trip as a pilgrim to the Holy Land enables one to understand better the reality of the Middle East,” said the Maronite from the Holy Land. A pilgrimage "offers the opportunity to know at first hand the reality of the Middle East, and have direct contact" with people, places, and events.

"For many today the problem is Islam, the coexistence with the Muslim world. However, dialogue with a Muslim who lives in Europe is different from one with a Muslim who lives in the Middle East "where the religion of Mohammed" is in the majority. " This highlights the "value and the cultural dimension", not only spiritual, of taking a journey in the footsteps of Jesus.

For Makhoul, there are many reasons to go to the Holy Land: to know one's faith, history, create a bond and ties of familiarity, establishing ties with the local community. "If you do not know the Holy Land, you cannot know the Gospel, the message of Christ. Going to the Holy Land is a way to evangelise, because it immerses you in the reality in which Jesus Christ was born and lived."

His appeal for pilgrimages comes at when the number of pilgrims from Europe, especially Italy, has dropped dramatically. "This year, we had 70 per cent fewer visitors than in the past. This was a lean year to say the least with many factors coming into play: security, attacks, economic crisis. But I want to make it clear that Israel is the safest country in the region."

What is more, it is well known that Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land have a "sacred" value for both Jews and Muslims "and are never touched."

"Especially in the eyes of Muslims, Christian pilgrims bring tranquility and calm,” he said. “They experience the trip as a time of joy and pilgrims take on an absolute value as someone who should be protected and everything done to help him or her."

Still, the drop in European pilgrims saw a rising number of Asian Catholics, in particular Chinese, visiting the Holy Land, a trend made easier by the agreement between China and Israel that removed visa requirements.

"Even for the local Church the pilgrimage is a crucial resource. Many Christians of the Holy Land are employed in pilgrimages, which are a crucial help psychologically, spiritually and financially. For this reason, I renew my appeal for people to come to the Holy Land to support us. They should not get caught up in fear or influenced by terrorism, but should trust God."

As Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, pointed out in an interview with AsiaNews, 30 per cent of Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem depend on the religious tourism industry.

This means, he explained, that "in practice that when there are pilgrimages at least 30 per cent of the labour force has a regular job, whereas when there is a pilgrimage crisis that 30 per cent is exposed to unemployment and, therefore, directly or indirectly, to emigration."

Responding to calls by Church figures in the region, AsiaNews has decided to offer again to its readers the opportunity of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Fr Bernardo Cervellera and local specialised guides. The departure is scheduled for 28 October with return on 4 November 2016.

For more details, click here.

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