Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov hosted the annual Christmas reception for
church leaders in Jerusalem on Monday.
At the reception and in a press
conference beforehand, Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu) called on all people of
faith around the world to come and visit the Holy Land and announced the
anticipated arrival of 90,000 Christian visitors during the upcoming holiday
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At the press conference, Meseznikov chose to highlight the joint
preparations made by Israeli and Palestinian authorities to enable free passage
from Israel to Bethlehem and said that tourism is a “Bridge to peace” between
the two nations.
“Tourism is a bridge to peace and dialogue among
countries, and successful cooperation is in the common interest of Israelis and
Palestinians alike. Tourism hastens economic growth, and creates jobs and
well-being. Most importantly, tourism can also contribute to building
trust between our nations as a basis for shared activity and cooperation,”
The minister spoke about the success of 2010 in terms of
incoming tourists, expected to reach a record of 3.5 million entries by the end
of the year, 2.4 million of them by Christians.
“2010 is a significant
year for tourism in the Palestinian Authority as well. Some 1.2 million tourists
visited Bethlehem, and a substantial increase is also evident in the number of
tourists who stayed in accommodations there. Continued fruitful cooperation will
lead to a rise in incoming tourism, for the benefit of all,” Meseznikov
Lt.-Col Ia’ad Sarchan, commander of the Bethlehem District
Coordination and Liaison office, presented a series of initiatives taken by the
IDF to ease checkpoint crossing for Christian visitors and enable more people to
take part in the Christmas festivities.
Sarchan said the IDF had
conducted meetings with the PA security forces in order to enable easy passage
of ceremonial processions into Bethlehem and had instructed the soldiers and
officers manning the border crossings to be extremely sensitive in their
treatment of pilgrims.
“We have authorized a series of trust-building
steps for the holiday season, including the granting of entrance and continuous
stay permits in Israel for people of the Christian faith for the next 30 days.
We also authorized the passage to the West Bank of 500 Christians from the Gaza
Strip, provided they are over the age of 35 and do not have any security
problems,” Sarchan said.
The IDF also approved the passage of 300
Christian Palestinians to foreign countries through Ben-Gurion Airport and the
admittance of 200 Christians from Arab countries into the West Bank through the
Sarchan said the security relaxations were the result
of continuous cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and
didn’t rule out that some of the easings would continue after the holiday
“The basket of easing measures depends on current security
evaluations and can be reversed if the situation changes. It is important for us
to strengthen the Bethlehem economy and that of the PA in general. Since the
beginning of the year, 1.1 million tourists have entered Bethlehem and 1.5
million entered the PA as a whole,” he said.
Sarchan said that Bethlehem
hotels were already packed and that pilgrims were forced to find accommodations
in churches and guest houses in the city.
from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that he hoped that the
foul winter weather in Europe would not prevent pilgrims from coming to Israel
for Christmas. He thanked the Tourism Ministry for its support and reiterated
the call for believers to come to Israel.
“The arrival of pilgrims is
good for both the Israeli and the Palestinian economies,” said
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy
Land, who oversees Israel, the PA, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt on behalf of
the Franciscan order, said that 2010 saw the largest number of pilgrims in
Israel’s history and stressed that the pilgrims came both from the West and from
the developing world, places like South America, Asia and Africa.
Holy Land is becoming the heart of life for people of faith across the entire
world. Christmas is a tradition of this land, and all the inhabitants can
enjoy the atmosphere and message of peace that the season brings,” said
Jurgen Buhler, international director of the International
Christian Embassy Jerusalem, congratulated Israel on its record-breaking tourism
year and encouraged continued cooperation with the PA.
“Each one of us
came to Israel at first as a tourist and knows how meaningful the experience is.
I praise the Tourism Ministry on its cooperation with the PA and think it should
be expanded to the works of other ministries,” Buhler said.