A Holy Land for All?
Twenty pilgrims from the Holyford Mission Community in East Devon enjoyed the experience of a lifetime over ten sunlit spring days in Jerusalem and Galilee. Having been thoroughly vetted by an enthusiastic team of trainee security staff at the El Al desk at Heathrow, we were warmly received in a community which depends almost entirely upon tourism for its livelihood. From the outset, we were in no doubt that this is a divided land; Jerusalem echoes to the Muslim call to prayer at 5 a.m., followed by the bells of the various monastic centres embedded in the city.
Highlights were many: we will not forget the vibrant and raucous Bar Mitzvah celebrations at the Western (Wailing) Wall, accompanied by rams’ horns and vigorous dancing. In the background stood the ever-present Israeli security guards, including teenage conscripts toting sub-machine guns. After the bustle and glitter of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusader Church of St Anne offered a welcome haven of peace as we sang our praises in the most flattering acoustic. The lavishly endowed Holocaust Museum presented us with all the harrowing details of persecution and concentration camps; the contrast with the affluent streets and shops of Jewish West Jerusalem could not be starker. Floating silently on the misty Sea of Galilee took us back 2,000 years; disembarking at our beach front hotel in Tiberias brought us sharply back to the present.
There was great generosity, not least in the beautiful and varied food of all the different cultures. We celebrated Eucharist at the Garden Tomb, on the Galilee shore and in the Anglican Cathedral of St. George – an outpost of Englishness in a Muslim neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.
The constant signs of division in a landscape marred by concrete and land mines are reminders of the barely concealed tensions. At the newly opened Baptismal Site on the Jordan, we paddled under the careful gaze of armed guards from Israel and Jordan, on their respective river banks.
Descending to the Dead Sea brought us to the spectacular Herodian fortress of Masada, set in the most barren desert, and then on to the high-rise spa hotels on the shore, where we bobbed in the mineral-laden water. In Jericho, we saw signs of growing Russian investment in a West Bank town deserted by its wealthy Israeli holidaymakers.
As well as the round of visits to the iconic sites connected with the birth, ministry and death of Jesus Christ, we were allowed privileged insights. Our tour operator, McCabe, supports projects in hard-pressed communities; we visited the Bethlehem Rehabilitation Centre which offers medical and pastoral support for the disabled, in a culture where disability still carries a powerful stigma. At Jeel al-Amal orphanage and primary school in Bethany, the unfettered glee of the children was inspiring, as was the pride and dedication of the staff. Bethany has been severed from Jerusalem by the hideous Security Separation Wall; its economy is shattered and few visitors make the enforced detour.
Our learned and charming guide, Samer, spoke movingly of his family history. As a Palestinian Christian, he sees new Jewish settlements on his grandfather’s land and, with the rest of us, wonders what the future holds in this volatile balance of conflicting aspirations. We were grateful (and lucky) to see things as they are, but peaceful co-existence seems as far away as ever.
Written by Richard Dawson.