A decade ago, pilgrimage travel companies just weren’t going there: now, they’re running full Holy Land tours

I was interested, in the final communiqué of eight Catholic bishops (Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Canada, Archbishop Joan-Enric Vives of Urgell and Andorra, Spain, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, USA, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, Germany, Bishop Michel Dubost of Evry in France, Bishop William Kenney, a COMECE representative, Bishop Peter Bürcher of Reykjavik, Nordic bishops’ conference, Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton) that “We encourage Christians to come on pilgrimage to the Holy Land where they will experience the same warm hospitality we received”.

What’s interesting about that is that they obviously think that despite the vast increase, I would have thought, in the instability of the Middle East in general over the last 10 years, they think it’s actually safe for us to go there. A quick check on the website of Pax Travel (from my own experience a firm that can be absolutely relied on to give you a good, safe experience, and to look after all the travel details in a way which minimises the snags) shows that they are now running full Holy Land tours touching all the bases (Sea of Galilee and all the associated sites, Caesarea Phillipi, Nazareth, Cana, Jordan valley, Qumran, Dead Sea Bethany, Jerusalem, Bethesda, Bethlehem). A decade ago, it just wasn’t doing the Holy Land at all, it wasn’t safe. The Israeli government was so concerned at the virtual collapse of the multimillion-dollar pilgrimage industry that they invited a group of journalists on Christian papers to be taken by them all over the Holy Land to see how safe it was and write articles when we got home saying so. I was editor of the Catholic Herald at the time, so I went. They looked after us well, of course, installing us in the very plushy Jerusalem Hilton, with a stunning view of the ancient city walls.

The guide they allocated to this operation was a passionate Zionist, and he made no bones about the fact that he wanted to make us all Zionists too (I asked my companions on the plane on the way home if he had succeeded with anyone: he hadn’t). It certainly wasn’t like Pax Travel, on which you get a Christian guide, quite likely a priest. Our Zionist, of course, took us to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, which I am glad to have seen, certainly, though I have my reservations about the associated museum, which I have expressed in this column (Pax Travel does not take you there). What was interesting was where our Zionist guide didn’t, couldn’t, take us. Relations between the Israeli government for which he worked and the Palestinian Authority were in the deep freeze, so we didn’t get to Bethlehem at all; and to see Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, instead of travelling directly north from Jerusalem (Palestinian Authority territory) we travelled down to the coast towards Tel Aviv, then north along the coast, then inland.

As we approached Nazareth, I was astonished to hear our Israeli guide making a phone call in fluent Arabic; he was speaking to the manager of a gift and souvenir shop, which was our first stop in Nazareth; our second was lunch at a curious establishment, I thought, not a restaurant but something else as well. What that turned out to be we saw after lunch, when we went up to the first floor, through a door, and out on to a hillside where we found ourselves in what was (convincingly) claimed to be an accurate reconstruction of first-century Nazareth, complete with synagogue, carpenter’s workshop, donkey-powered olive press, first-century Palestinians riding around on donkeys and carrying lambs and so forth (have a look at it here).

What actually being in first-century Palestine must have been like is most vividly and movingly experienced, of course, in a fishing boat in the Sea of Galilee, where everything is exactly as it was: no 20th-century architectural nastinesses to be seen, just the shore and the waves; we even saw fish being hauled in, in a net, on a nearby boat (I don’t think this had been laid on for our benefit).

What’s interesting, though, from my point of view, is that seeing all that is now actually, so it seems, safer than it was, not more dangerous, as I would have supposed it would be, given everything that is now going on. When I got back from the Holy Land, 10 years ago, I wrote a piece for the Times saying that your chance of being blown up by terrorists in London were probably greater than dying in such a way in Jerusalem (the Provisionals were still letting off bombs on the mainland) and that I thought my readers should certainly go there if they got a chance. But only a few weeks later, a terrorist bomb was let off in the foyer of the Jerusalem Hilton, where we had all been signed in by the Israeli tourist ministry, presumably on the grounds that it was about as safe as you could get, and when a month or two after that, I was invited by the Israelis to send someone else to the holy land I had to tell them that I couldn’t, conscientiously, in view of the clearly deteriorating situation, put one of my journalists into such a risky situation.

Now, counter-intuitively, it’s safe again, it seems. It’s a wonderful experience, the Holy Land, and I have never forgotten it; Jerusalem, particularly, and everything in it, is a most extraordinary phenomenon, after encountering which you will never see life in quite the same way again. So, I can only echo those eight bishops: go, if you can, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where you will, undoubtedly, “experience the same warm hospitality [they] received”; and a great deal more besides that.