U.S. Christians trek to Israel despite news reports
(May 27, 2001)
The Hallelujah, a large wooden boat similar
to the kind Jesus sailed on, glides to a stop at a dock on the Sea of
Galilee. Overhead, the sun cuts through the mornings haze on this
balmy day as dozens of U.S. tourists disembark from the boat. "Every
place I have read about in my Bible has become so real to me since being
here," says Elva Ahearn, who is touring Israel with several others
from Westwood Christian Assembly in Seattle, as she leaves the dock.
"This is a trip of a lifetime."
The Western Wall
in Jerusalem continues to be a popular tourist site.
Despite media reports of fighting between Israelis
and Palestinians, thousands of Christians are trekking to Israel, a
country of only 6 million residents. "We are fortunate the American
Christians are our biggest supporters," says Tsion Ben-David, a
director for Israels Tourism Ministry. "More than 60 percent
of those who come to Israel from the United States are Christians."
Many, like Ahearn, say the opportunity to learn
more about Jesus diminished fears of traveling to a country some think
is on the brink of war. "In a spiritual sense its like coming
home," says George O. Wood, general secretary of the Assemblies
of God, who has led 18 tours to Israel and says he feels "absolutely
safe" visiting the country. "Six million people go to work
and school every day in Israel. Random acts of violence can happen anywhere
in the world."
Sitting on marbled floors in the ruins of a former
synagogue in Capernaum, nearly 100 U.S. tourists sing "Father,
I Adore You" before listening to their guide, who also is their
pastor, deliver a sermon. Nearby, standing in the shade of olive trees,
Sylvia Kidron, 53, a Christian and an Israeli citizen, says Americans
should not fear coming to Israel. "There is no reason for Christians
not to come here," she says, adding that most of the tourist areas
are open and safe.
Since fighting between Israelis and Palestinians
intensified last October, an estimated 600,000 tourists, who would have
brought $1 billion in revenue, have canceled trips to the Holy Land.
Despite the slowdown in tourism, daily routines
in Jerusalem continue. Children attend school. Couples sip Turkish coffee
in street-side cafes. Tourists pose for pictures in front of the Western
But the thin alleyways of Jerusalems bazaar
reveal the drop-off in Israels tourism industry especially
in the Christian and Jewish quarters. In these areas, which are normally
bustling with tourists, shopkeepers spring to their feet at the sight
of shoppers. "Look at this place," says one shopkeeper. "Its
Jael Shilo, a tour guide, is optimistic that tourism
will bounce back because of the countrys rich history and spiritual
significance. "Israel is the best place for believers to visit,"
she says. "The value for Christians is experiencing the places
where Jesus ministered."
For many, that is enough to venture to an unsettled,
but holy, land.