Pilgrims bolster Christian presence in Holy Land   2009/11/30
By: JOSEPH KENNY of St. Louis Review

ISRAEL Pilgrims play an important part in keeping Christianity alive in the Holy Land.

One place where that is obvious is at the Mount of Beatitudes, a hill at the northwestern point of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Early in the morning on Nov. 19 the grounds were filled with groups from across the world who gathered for Mass or to stroll around the flower-filled gardens.

While pilgrims from Poland sang and prayed at Mass, groups from Italy and Spain waited outside with their priests for Masses that would follow in succession. A group of young people from the United States gathered in another section of the grounds and listened as one of their leaders explained the significance of the site.

The Italian government funded the construction of the eight-sided Church of Beatitudes in 1937.

On a prominent hill southwest of the Sea of Galilee, 1,350 feet above sea level, is Mount Tabor, where Jesus ascended in the Transfiguration before the eyes of Peter, James and John. At the summit is the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration, built in 1924 over the ruins of Byzantine and Crusader churches, a common occurrence in the Holy Land.

In late afternoon Nov. 18 a priest from Brooklyn led a group on the grounds as a Mass was celebrated in English with another group. Italian Catholics also gathered on the site.

"I go to church every day, and it becomes routine," said Ellie Porlares of St. Andrew Parish in Clifton, N.J. A nurse at a hospital, she said she made the trip to the Holy Land "to make me more connected to my faith and give me strength when I go back to real life."

A group of journalists from Catholic publications that included a Review reporter toured Israel for seven days this month in a visit sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Stanley Morais, an official with El Al Israel Airlines, said the government is committed to the free practice of religion for all, regardless of religious affiliation and to allowing people of all faiths access to the country's holy sites.

"Christians coming to the Holy Land find it extremely meaningful. It's here Jesus was born and raised. It's the only land He knew. The Bible comes to life here in Israel and the Holy Land," he said.

A visit to the Holy Land change's one's life from a spiritual perspective, Morais said. "Once you come here you want to keep coming back and back."

His own Jewish faith was affected by family visits, he noted. Two years ago he and his family came to live in Israel from their native Toronto.

Morais met Pope Benedict XVI after his visit in May to the Holy Land. El Al flew the pope back to Rome, and Morais spoke with him twice. After the pope blessed Cyprus after flying over it, the president of Cyprus sent a message. Morais sheepishly asked a monsignor accompanying the pope if he could interrupt him. Pope Benedict, eating a salad at the time, was happy to get the message.

"It was very humbling as a Jew. His presence here in Israel meant a lot to the Catholic world and strengthened the relationship between the two religions," Morais said. "His actions, to come to the Holy Land, was very, very important to the Catholic world."

Ron and Barb Quigley of Ballwin, on a 16-day tour of the Holy Land as part of an in-depth Bible study with a Protestant group, were in Nazareth where pilgrims stop at the Church of the Annunciation, Mary's Well and the Church of St. Joseph. Standing in the area where Jesus spent his childhood with Mary and Joseph, a place where many Christian Arabs live along with a Muslim Arab population, the Quigleys reflected on their visit.

"We're trying to understand the cultural context and how the context changes when you look at biblical stories," said Barb Quigley, who works with several Catholics at the Center for Bioethics and Culture in St. Louis. "It gives us a different understanding of the significance of things when looked at culturally, geographically and culturally."

The Quigleys noted that they stood where Jesus preached and are able to see how the people in the Holy Land live today, especially considering the contemporary political climate.

Catholics living in the Palestinian territories of Israel, whose movement throughout the country is restricted, pleaded for visitors from the United States to come to the biblical sites. Adnan, a shopkeeper in Bethlehem, West Bank, said the news media and others have made people hesitant to visit because of fears of violence. "Everyone should be relaxed," he said. "We love everybody. People here are really nice, and that's not propaganda."

He noted that Catholic charitable organizations are helping the community, devastated by the travel restrictions in the walled-in area. It is helpful, but what the people really want is to work for themselves, Adnan said.

A Palestinian tour guide who is able to travel freely in Israel, Maher Desouki, agreed that the people in Bethlehem are friendly and open to not only Americans but all visitors. "We respect people's faith, no matter what it is," he said. "The relationship between Muslims and Christians is very good. We respect each other, go to the same schools and speak Arabic. And we don't hate Israelis or the Jewish people. We hope God will open their hearts so we all can be together."

Several Israelis said the media focuses on breaking news stories and not everyday life. They also said the people of all religions interact and hope for leaders to establish a peaceful co-existence.

Earlier this month Cardinal John P. Foley, grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said the Holy Land is special. "We want to visit it; we want to guarantee a continued living Christian presence there."

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