hand with crucifix .
(photo credit: AP)
A group of 1,800 French Catholic students are in Israel on a 10-day visit organized by the Conference of Bishops of France.
The pilgrimage, made up of students ranging in age from 18 to 25 - most of whom have never been to Israel before - is the first such venture of the umbrella body for the French Church in coordination with the Tourism Ministry.
The trip, which includes stops at the main holy sites mentioned in the Bible, including the Judean Desert, the Negev, Tiberias, the Galilee, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is taking place under the slogan: "The Bible is not just a book, it is a people: go to the Holy Land!"
"The root of the Church is to be found in events that took place in this country and this city two millennia ago and our daily experience cannot be divided from those events," the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Mgr. Andre Vingt Trois, said at a Jerusalem press conference.
He was flanked by his colleague from Lyons, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, and the Tourism Ministry director-general Noaz Bar-Nir.
The students on the trip, which cost â‚¬1,000, said they were delighted to discover the Holy Land.
"It is so much more beautiful than I imagined," said Marie Lecouffe, 22, from Paris. "I thought it was like a big desert with little trees and instead I find a beautiful landscape which has helped me to pray. As tourists the land is really beautiful, and as Christians it is even more beautiful because here Jesus walked."
"The image you get from the media is of a country devastated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Clotilde Rigal, 19, from Lyon. "But to experience the people is really amazing."
Forty percent of the 265,000 French tourists who visited Israel last year were Catholics, the Tourism Ministry said. The Ministry's target is to get 500,000 tourists from France annually starting next year, more than half of whom will be Catholics.
About 80% of French people define themselves as Catholic.
The French Church counts an estimated 35 million faithful, the ministry said.