British church leaders of various denominations laced up their hiking boots, hoisted rucksacks and gathered laptops this week in order to publicise a unique virtual 'Journey to Jerusalem' for Lent 2009.
The online tour is being organised by the UK-based international development agency Christian Aid.
Anglican bishops met leaders of the Methodist, United Reformed Church and Congregational Federation, outside Westminster Abbey under a sign pointing the way to Jerusalem.
Churches are highlighting a virtual Israel-Palestine pilgrimage which transports travellers from their email inbox to the lands made familiar through both the Bible and contemporary - sometimes tragic -headlines.
The Rt Rev Peter Price, Anglican Bishop of Bath and Wells, said: “If you can’t go to the Holy Land in reality then the next best thing is this virtual journey. It’s important for us to have a picture of the Holy Land today to understand better what Jesus was saying to us in the Gospel. His challenge to create a world of compassion, justice and truth remains a responsibility of all Christian people and all people of good will.”
The online pilgrimage gives people the chance to watch short videos, go to photo galleries, read stories and pray in the places where Jesus preached.
They also meet local Christians, Jews and Muslims living there today, hear their personal stories and hear how the conflict touches the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, and learn how hard many people are working for peace.
Christine Elliot, Methodist Church Secretary for External Affairs commented: “A virtual pilgrimage is a contradiction of terms but the opportunity to hear people from parts of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and enter into their lives gives greater opportunity for us to begin to walk in an other’s shoes.”
Baptist and Christian Aid Intercommunity initiative manager Nigel Varndell added: "The situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories is politically complicated, theologically challenging and, at a human level, heartbreaking. For many of us it is so difficult we don't know where to begin. I think this online pilgrimage is the perfect place to start and I hope that Baptists will sign up, get informed and get involved."
Meanwhile, the Rev Richard Mortimer, the United Reformed Church General Secretary, pointed out that “[t]he Holy Land is treasured by three great world faiths. All three religions seek peace and the common good. The virtual pilgrimage can help us connect with the story of the Land in order to help that process.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank and news service Ekklesia, which is helping to publicise the 'virtual pilgrimage' to Jerusalem through its website, mailings and networks, said: "Christian Aid has come up with an innovative way of connecting people in Britain to the movement for hope and change in Israel-Palestine - not just by making donations and engaging in advocacy, important as those are, but by opening our eyes and hearts to what is going on and what it means in human and spiritual terms."
He added: "This imaginative initiative captures the true spirit of Lent, which is not just about detaching ourselves from the selfish impulses which end up dividing human communities; it also positively unites us to the dream and struggle of 'a new world coming' in the midst of tension and fear."
Lent 2009 begins on 25 February. To sign up to a free online pilgrimage, please click on the advert on the right-hand side of this page.