Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land need to go beyond a mere homage to ancient sites and instead show concern for the Palestinian people living there, whose lives are severely constricted by the Israeli occupation of their land.
This was the message sent by a group of 27 theologians, Palestinian Christian activists and tourism organisers as well as representatives of advocacy organisations from 14 countries, who gathered at Chavannes-de-Bogis, near Geneva (Switzerland), from 18-21 May 2010.
“Justice tourism concentrates on political realities. Only by living what Palestinians experience all the time can a visitor recognise the injustices that are their daily bread. With this understanding comes a desire to help end the accumulated injustices in Palestine,” said Rami Kassis, executive director of the Alternative Tourism Group.
Participants at the meeting in Chavannes-de-Bogis asked pilgrims to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinian Christians. After 2,000 years of continuous presence in the land, their numbers have been steadily diminishing over the last decades as the hardships they face due to occupation have led many to emigrate.
Pilgrims coming to the Holy Land on Israeli-organised mainstream tours often ignore the Palestinian people and their situation. That they only hear, and then reinforce, the Israeli narrative can contribute to the problem, the group concluded.
“They think they are bringing hope, but they are actually taking away hope from the whole region,” said Rifat Kassis, representing Kairos Palestine. Modelled on the South African Kairos document, Kairos Palestine is a Christian initiative which gives theological grounding to recommended actions for a just peace.
Tourism to Palestine was identified as an opportunity for a “pilgrimage of transformation” representing a deeper Christian experience that invites pilgrims to a genuine encounter with the Body of Christ by connecting with Palestinian sisters and brothers in faith.
The meeting strongly recommended that pilgrims follow the Code of Conduct for Tourism in the Holy Land, a document drawn up by a Palestinian network which gives guidance about trip preparation, behaviour, and follow-up actions.
Participants expressed grave concern about the monopoly which Israel exercises over Holy Land tourism and the crippling restrictions it imposes on Palestinian tour operators, hotels, and guides that limit development of this key sector of the Palestinian economy.
The Israeli occupation impacts Palestinian life drastically. About 400 Israeli military checkpoints dot the West Bank, hindering Palestinian travel for work, school, family visits, and health care.
The separation wall that slices through vast swathes of their land, further cuts off Palestinians from each other and from East Jerusalem, the traditional centre of Palestinian religious, cultural, and commercial life.
Israeli authorities also block West Bank Palestinian Christians, whose families would normally celebrate Easter and other Christian feasts by worshipping in Jerusalem, from entering the city.
However, reports on the Palestinian tourism sector show that despite restrictions, it is both vibrant and growing, offering authentic and unique experiences and an array of tours and opportunities to meet specific interests.
On the Nativity Trail, for example, tourists travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, interacting with local Palestinians, including Christians, Bedouins and other communities along the way.
The meeting in Chavannes-de-Bogis was organised by the Alternative Tourism Group in cooperation with the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF), the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT) and Kairos Palestine.