In a small Palestinian village where Jesus was said to have brought Lazarus back to life, sewage now runs through the streets and outdated walking paths expose pilgrims neither to local people nor to nature, an ecological architect told a conference audience on Tuesday.

Greening its prime pilgrimage route has become a priority in the village of Azariya, located just east of Jerusalem in the West Bank, explained Dr. Elias Messinas, architect and founding chairman of Israel’s branch of the international organization ECOWEEK. Home to the tomb of Saint Lazarus, Azariya is historically a major stop along the route leading from Jericho to Jerusalem.

“Tourists come in buses, they visit the specific sites, they don’t leave any money to the community,” said Messinas, speaking at a session entitled Transforming Environmental Hazards into Resources. “There are a lot of important landmarks along the route that could be revitalized.”

Messinas was speaking on Tuesday at The First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage held in the capital city throughout this week.

From March 3 through 8, ECOWEEK held a workshop in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian young professionals and students interested in generating a rehabilitation plan and new, greener pilgrimage route for the village.

If adopted, the new route formulated by the group would wind its way from a new parking lot at Azariya’s northwest tip, southwest till it would reach the West Bank security barrier – which the planners pinpointed as an ideal point for passage into Jerusalem by way of the Mount of Olives, if the authorities permit entrance there.

Along the brand new route would be a prominent community ecological center, with organic farms, ecological workshops, rainwater collection mechanisms and sewage treatment education, Messinas said.

Because part of the village’s sewage flows down exposed street gutters and the rest is buried in backyard pits, Messinas stressed the importance of establishing sewage treatment mechanisms in the village for its vitality both as a home to residents and as an attractive, spiritual pilgrimage site.

The entire path would be greener and cleaner, with a revitalized Apostle’s Spring and throngs of trees, as well as a brand new green park and public square for local mingling and shopping.

While the plans generated by the young cross-border team are preliminary and have not been adopted by either the Palestinian or Israeli governments, Messinas said he was confident that they would be able to get the project off the ground.

“I really hope that next year when we come again here we can show you what we’ve done in Azariya,” he said.

Fatmah Faroun, head of Shorouq Society for Women in Azariya, said she was very much in favor of the plan for the revamped, green pilgrim path and the ecological center in particular, which she said could serve as a place for dialogue.

Count Philippe Piccapietra, grand chancellor of the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, pledged funding at the session for the new park near the monastery. Piccapietra was particularly critical of the current placement of the pilgrimage route from Azariya to Jerusalem from an environmental perspective – a route that he said has been unnecessarily elongated because there is no security gate at the edge of the village to pass through the security barrier.

“When we talk about green and ecological pilgrimage it is ridiculous to go with all the coaches down the valley and to go all the way back up the hill to visit the tomb of Saint Lazarus,” Piccapietra said.

“Actually, it is unacceptable because we are burning tons of fuel every year.”

Despite his frustration with this aspect, Piccapietra said he was eager to see an environmentally transformed Azariya.

“Having such a beautiful place where you can have people from Azariya, where you can work, talk and inspire people, this will be the gift of the Order of Saint Lazarus to Azariya,” he said.

Earlier in the day at the Green Pilgrimage Symposium, ecologist Prof. Uriel Safriel stressed the idea that as the “nature of nature” changes in space and over time, it is a driving force for movement and for pilgrimage.

“[Pilgrimage] is a movement in search of something that is missing at home but is available at the target, or it is something that is missing here now but is now available there,” he said.

Sometimes the movement of human and nature occurs simultaneously, a phenomenon that occurs at Jerusalem’s Western Wall when the swifts swoop in for springtime nesting, Safriel noted.

“Animals migrate to satisfy their physical needs and people make pilgrimage to satisfy spiritual needs and these are often provided at the same site and time,” he said.

While the swifts – whose arrival would be officially marked by the city on Wednesday night – nest in the wall, they feed in the countryside, and so too do people need such ecology to complement their pilgrimages, Safriel stressed.

Corridors between nature patches within and outside the city can only enhance the quality of pilgrimage, as well as provide climate regulation and air purification, he added.

“I have been saying that pilgrims and hedgehogs share the bewilderment of not knowing when they are crossing a municipal boundary,” said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, who initiated the Green Pilgrimage Symposium.

Cities, which by definition are “dynamic nodes of activity,” also generate huge amounts of waste, noted Russell Galt, program manager at ICLEI’s (Local Governments for Sustainability) Cities Biodiversity Center in Cape Town, South Africa. In both pilgrimage cities and normal, thriving municipalities alike, building going forward needs to be ecologically restorative, based on more sustainable and resilient designs that promote nature conservation, Galt said.

Helene Roumani, director of the Jerusalem Bio-Region Center for Ecosystem Management presented a final draft version of a brand new report on Jerusalem’s biodiversity. While the report will not be officially published until next week, Roumani explained that it is the result of Israel joining the Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) program under ICLEI in 2009, which prompted city officials to map out Jerusalem’s ecosystem and generate a biodiversity strategy.

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