Thousands Make Christmas Pilgrimage to Israel

Jerusalem, Dec. 15 – Israel is laying out the red carpet for at least 90,000 tourists who are expected in the country for the winter holidays. At least a third are Christian pilgrims who will visit holy sites and celebrate Christmas in Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Government authorities have been working with the heads of the different Christian communities in their annual effort to ensure safety and standards. In addition to extra staff at Ben Gurion International Airport and bolstering local efforts in Jerusalem and Nazareth, the Ministry of Tourism will provide free shuttle buses for pilgrims to take them from Jerusalem to Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

Israeli President Shimon Peres visited a church in the city of Jaffa Thursday and gave Christmas greetings to Christians around the world. He expressed his hope that "Christmas would bring with it the message of peace to the Middle East and the entire world."

Referring to the Arab Spring unrest in neighboring countries, Peres said that "it is upon all religious leaders who obligated to preach and promote peace and prevent war." Peres added that "Israel will continue to defend all religious holy places, whether in a church, mosque or synagogue, so that every believer will feel free to pray, to believe and to worship his religion, each according to his own belief."

Festive lights already line the streets of Jerusalem to help celebrate Christmas and the eight-day Jewish festival of Chanukah, which began on Tuesday.

Israel also distributes Christmas Trees in Jerusalem and around the country free to local churches, monasteries, convents, embassies, foreign journalists and at a small charge to the general public. The national agency charged with managing Israel’s forests grows special cedar trees and harvests some of them annually for Christmas. Officials say that having the Jewish National Fund in charge of handing out trees both prevents illegal tree cutting and gives the Christian community easy access so that festive Christmas trees are available to all.

The Christian community is an essential component of incoming tourism to Israel. In 2010, over 3.45 million tourists visited Israel, of which 70 percent were Christian and over half of those were pilgrims.

"Christian tourism to Israel, along its many denominations, is an important anchor in tourism to Israel,” said Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov. “Over the last year, we have increased cooperation with Christian community leaders … with the goal of meeting the tourism potential of a community of hundreds of millions of believers worldwide."

Israeli authorities have also taken steps to help Palestinian Christians celebrate the holiday by issuing permits for Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to visit family in Israel, and permits for Christians from Arab countries to enter the West Bank.

In the past century Jerusalem and Bethlehem have both grown so much that they now share a common municipal boundary between Israel's capital city to the north and the city revered as the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ to the south. Each Christmas season sees the annual quiet cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities that allows tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists to quickly and easily cross the border between the two.

Church leaders met Tuesday with Israeli and Palestinian security officials to review preparations, and the leaders mentioned that over the past months they have seen a large increase in the number of tourists visiting Christian holy sites and the city of Bethlehem. The increase was a sign of confidence in the safety and stability of the Holy Land in contrast to a decrease in tourism earlier this year that was attributed to nervousness over regional unrest due to the Arab Spring.

Key Holiday Dates

December 24 – Christmas Eve celebrations, traditional processions in Nazareth and from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

December 25 – Christmas Day, special mass at Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Jan 1 – New Years Day

January 7 – Christmas Day for Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Coptic and Seriane Churches

January 18 – Armenian Christmas

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