Christian church leaders from around the world came together at the Grand Court Hotel in Jerusalem on Thursday to call on people of faith around the world to make a pilgrimage to Israel.
The pre-Christmas and New Year's event, organized by the Ministry of Tourism, brought together leaders of the Christian communities in Israel, ambassadors from Sri Lanka, Croatia, Argentina and the Philippines, representatives from Israeli tourism bodies, private sector leaders in the Palestinian tourism industry, the chairman of the Palestinian Hotels Association and hotel managers from Bethlehem and Jericho to discuss the importance of Christian pilgrimage.
Senior Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Tourism Raphael Ben-Hur gave an introduction as to why the event was so special.
"We are here to announce a very important call, a call to all people of faith to visit the holy land now," Ben-Hur said. "You know, the holy land is something that, when it comes to pilgrims and when it comes to faith, there is no dispute. Not between us, between Jews and Christians, or between Palestinians, because the holy land is the land of God."
During his speech Ben-Hur repeatedly pointed at a sign on the wall, bearing the slogan of the ministry's initiative: "A call to all people of faith. Visit the Holy Land Now."
"I cannot imagine myself - if I was Jewish, Christian or Muslim - going my entire life without being at least one time in the holy land," Ben-Hur said. "Can you imagine going your entire life without being in the holy land? I think it's ridiculous." Â Â Â
Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Church Patriarchate Aristarchus said that it was important to bring the leaders of the Christian faith together to help make the call to countries around the world.
"We declare that pilgrimage should be continued in the holy land," Aristarchus said. "The holy land, which God gave to us, is where we are united, despite the quarters, and we encourage people to continue to come."
The papal nuncio to Israel, Antonio Franco, said that it is the job of Christian leaders to encourage pilgrimage to Israel.
"We can see that the people have been responding to this call and the encouragement from the leaders in the Christian churches and organizations but also from the Christians in the holy land itself," Franco said.
Reverend Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said that it is important for Christians to come and visit Israel to see the Bible come alive.
"Many Christians have their Bibles throughout the world, but when you visit this land and you see the city of these remarkable events that forms and fashions their faith, somehow the Bible becomes new," Hedding said. "It all happens in ways that you can only get from this remarkable land."
Speakers also included members of the tourism industry, including the chairman of the Palestinian Hotels Association, Elias Al Arja.
Al Arja said that he believes that tourism can bring Palestine and Israel together.
"We believe that tourism can be the bridge to peace and understanding between both nations," Al Arja said.