By Julie Stahl
CNSNews.com Jerusalem Bureau Chief
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) — Visitors are returning to the Holy Land in near record numbers this year, despite five years of violence in the region that continues to this day.
On Good Friday, Christian pilgrims from around the world crowded the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City and packed the plaza outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Some 90,000 visitors are expected during this Passover/Easter week — up from 75,000 during this same week last year, the Tourism Ministry said.
In 2000, Israel expected a record number of tourists, in a year when Christians were celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Jesus’ birth. But the Palestinian uprising, which began in earnest in September 2000, sent tourism into a tailspin.
Last year, about 1.9 million tourists visited Israel: 43 percent were Jewish; 42 percent Christian; and five percent were Muslims or “other.” More than 2.6 million tourists are expected in all of 2006. That would be an all-time high, according to the Tourism Ministry.
(The Frommer’s travel guide people attribute the increase in tourism to a more aggressive visit-Israel marketing campaign and new, direct airline routes.)
Winding through the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, pilgrims mingled with local Arab Jerusalemites doing their Friday shopping.
Carrying a four-foot wooden cross, one group of Indonesians pressed through the streets singing Christian songs in their native tongue to guitar music. One man from the group stood out from the crowd, blessing Israel in a loud voice.
Another small group of pilgrims knelt to pray aloud on the stony street.
Thousands of pilgrims packed the square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday, marking the day on which Jesus was crucified.
Patti Humble, 41, from Atlanta, Georgia, is here for the first time. “It’s a pilgrimage to see the Holy Land. It’s very special coming during Holy Week,” said Humble, referring to the week between Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Easter Sunday, when Christians believe he was resurrected from the dead.
“It was one of the things I wanted to do in my lifetime, and this was the opportunity,” said Humble’s mother, Marie Peters, 80, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the highlight for her, she said. “Pictures just don’t do it justice. You can’t get the feeling,” she said.
Originally built in 330 A.D. by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church was built on the hill where Jesus was crucified and buried, according to some Christian traditions.
Andree Chicha, part of the same U.S. tour group, was also on a pilgrimage — her first trip to the Holy Land.
“I’m overwhelmed. It’s been absolutely fantastic. Last night was the most special. It was going from the Garden of Gethsemane procession up to where Jesus was imprisoned. Doing it on the same night that he was walking that path was overwhelming,” she said.
Chicha said she was not afraid to come. “I thought Holy Week in the Holy Land this I cannot miss… I thought that if something would happen to me here it was my time and it would be the right place for it to happen,” she said.
One Israeli couple, originally from Canada, said they were glad to see so many Christians visiting Israel again.
“It’s great to see also that people are not put off by the fear of what the press has to say about visiting the Holy Land or Israel. They’re coming here in droves for this special occasion. It’s great to see that people of faith will come and continue to come,” said the husband, who identified himself only as Stephen.
Just outside the church compound, Sam Atiah, who owns a souvenir shop, said he hopes the visitor influx will last.
“There [are] plenty of people coming, going in and out and I hope things [are] going to become better but we have to wait and see,” said Atiah. “I keep my fingers crossed,” he said. “I can’t tell you if business is picking up, but we see a lot of people going and coming, so we hope so.”
Not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, outside the Old City walls, is the Garden Tomb, which dates back to the first century and in which many believe Jesus could have been buried.
Ken Trestrail, 78, from Cornwall, England, has volunteered at the Garden Tomb on and off since 1981 as a “guide, comforter, whatever is needed,” he said.
The Garden Tomb, also known as the jewel of East Jerusalem, was established as a tourist site after an English general, Charles Gordon, discovered in 1884 a prominent rocky crag resembling a skull. According to the Bible, the place where Jesus was crucified was called Golgotha — the place of the skull. An ancient tomb was nearby.
On Friday morning, about 100 visitors came to the Garden Tomb for a Good Friday service. Many others entered the gardens for a day of meditation.
“The month of March is the third busiest March since 1990,” said Trestrail. “So tourism has grown considerably these past few months. We did have a very, very, very bad spell all through the intifadah period, but now it’s much, much better.”
Even when things were bad, the Indonesians kept coming, he said. (Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, has no diplomatic relations with Israel.) “Americans and Brits are coming more freely now, which is good. We missed them. Thus far we haven’t lost anybody in the intifadah period,” said Trestrail.
Joani and Ray Duncan from northern California said they came to visit despite relatives’ concerns. “[It’s] totally safe. I recommend, especially to Christians, you’ve got to come. I mean, to be where Jesus was, it’s just the ultimate of being a Christian,” said Joani.
Donna DePerfia, originally from Chicago, said she drew inspiration from her tour guide.
“I was under the impression that we would have a Christian tour guide and we actually had a Jewish tour guide. I really wanted a Christian, but I think he made Jesus even more real as a person to us because Jesus was Jewish,” DePerfia said.
“I think every Christian should be here. I think non-Christians should be here, just because I think a lot of non-Christians don’t know anything about Christianity. I think it’s an eye-opener,” she said.
Joshua Loiloande is a Quaker teacher from Kenya, who is working at a Christian school in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
“I’ve come to join others in remembering the great day that Jesus died for our sins, to redeem the whole world for it is also great importance to come where I believe that His body was laid,” said Loiloande.