Christian pilgrims boost Israeli tourism

By Mariana Cristancho-Ahn

Christian pilgrims visit the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — In the weeks before Easter, Christian pilgrims could be found visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem in ever increasing number.   For many of them, mainly Protestants, this is the place where Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The Garden Tomb is located just outside the Old City near the Damascus Gate and sits right next to a rock formation that appears to have a skull shape.  Biblical accounts state that there was a garden right near the place where Jesus was crucified, and that he was taken to a place called “Golgotha” or “Place of the Skull” outside the walled city.

Many Catholic and Eastern Christian groups believe that the crucifixion, burial and resurrection happened just a short distance away at what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But while at least six Christian denominations share the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb is not a church at all.  The two-acre garden houses a tomb discovered in 1867; some archaeologists describe it as a typical tomb of the 1st century AD. The site is maintained by a British charitable trust named The Garden Tomb Association.

On a recent spring day, groups of pilgrims from around the world gathered singing hymns and holding communion services at different locations of the garden before entering the empty tomb carved into a solid stone wall.

“I always wanted to come here since I was a child,” said Catherine Mortimer, 21, a Christian who came in a group of about 30 pilgrims from Johannesburg, South Africa. “We have been all over Israel from head to toe and it has been a good spiritual journey for me personally.”

According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism about 54 percent of the 2.7 million visitors that came to Israel in 2009 were Christians tourists.  Jewish tourists accounted for 39 percent.

Preliminary reports from the recent Passover-Easter holiday season indicate that tourism is increasing rapidly. About 550,000 travelers passed through Ben-Gurion airport between March 25 and April 8. An article in the Jerusalem Post said that air travel was up nearly 20 percent in the holiday season.

Revenue from tourism in 2009 was about $ 3.3 billion. The United States represented the largest country of origin for incoming tourists with nearly 550,000 visitors, followed by Russia, 400,000; France, 260,000; and the United Kingdom, 170,000.

From Jesus Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem to the different sites connected to his ministry in the Galilee region to Jerusalem where he spent his last days, many Christian pilgrims are attracted to the idea of “walking the steps that Jesus walked” which is the phrase many used to describe their motivation for visiting the Holy Land.

“Walking in the steps of Jesus is just awesome,” said Jimmy Faison, 62, from North Carolina.  “So much that we have read about had come to life and you can place it in the context where it should be.”

Cliff that some believe is "Golgotha" or "Place of the Skull." (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

Some Christian pilgrims took the experience beyond Israel visiting the neighboring countries of Egypt and Jordan.  Rev. Robert Botsford, from Horizon Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical church in San Diego, came with a group of 50 in a pilgrimage called “Following the Footsteps of Moses.”

His group started the journey in Egypt touring the Nile River and visiting places like Mt. Sinai, the place where, according to the Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments.  In Jordan the group visited Amman, Petra and Mt. Nebo, where Moses died after seeing the Promised the Land.

In Petra, Botsford and his group held an outdoor service of prayer and outreach.  “My love for God is what brings me here,” said Tony Canarieto, 55, one of the members of the tour. “I have been able to connect Biblical stories to specific places.”

The Garden Tomb is a favorite of Evangelical groups. In fact, tour groups organized by the New York-based Chosen People Ministries ends it 10-day Holy Land tour at the tomb.

Rich Freeman, who organizes tours for Chosen People, said: “American Christians are friends of Israel. We want them to see the importance of Israel strategically to our country and the importance of Israel spiritually.”  The theme of their tours is to “See Israel Through Jewish Eyes.”

At the Garden Tomb shortly before Easter, a British volunteer tour guide, Roy Haywood, minimized the differences between the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  There is no way to know for sure whether the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the actual site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, he said.

“Jesus was crucified somewhere in Jerusalem and he was buried somewhere in Jerusalem.” he said.  “He rose again. Isn’t that far more important? Jesus is alive and he is alive today.”

“If we knew the exact place where Jesus was crucified and buried we would have finished up worshiping the site instead of the living Lord,” he adds.

Haywood, 70, said he was an atheist who nine years ago became a Christian after being healed from a pain in his arm that he couldn’t get rid off. “I had a visitation in the night from Jesus and I told him if you can take the pain away, I will become a believer and the pain went instantly,” he said. Since 2002 he comes to Israel frequently to volunteer as a tour guide.

Sarkis Joulfaian, a Californian born in Armenia, sits on a bench in the Garden in a contemplative mood.  Looking at the tomb he reflects on the meaning of his visit, “It helps me to reinforce my faith in the Bible,” he said. “And to recommit myself to follow the principles and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Growing up in a Christian family, Joulfaian, 52, said he became a real believer when he was about 19 years old as he started reading the Bible. “I committed my life to Jesus because he is able to forgive my sins and he has given me that gift of forgiveness as I accepted him as Lord and Savior of my life.”

Joulfaian grew up hating the Turkish because of their role in the Armenian genocide.  “My father saw his seven brothers and his parents being killed in front of him when he was five or six years old,” he said while describing how his faith has helped him to forgive others. “Within a few weeks I met a Turkish fellow from school and I came to recognize I need to forgive him and his parents and the Turkish people just like God has forgiven me.”

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