Although the political climate in Israel deterred several of the usual events, the Christian Embassy's annual Feast of the Tabernacles celebration a record a 6,000 people from 72 countries to Israel over the Sukkot holiday.
The trip, which has taken place for over 20 years, allows Christian Embassies worldwide to organize groups and send representatives to Israel for a religious pilgrimage. It also pours in approximately $15 million to Israel.
Since the early 1980s, it has been a tradition for the president and prime minister of Israel to meet with the pilgrims. This year, however, neither of those figures met nor spoke with the visitors. Organizers for the event said they were surprised when many of Israelis political leaders declined to meet with the group.
"It was disappointing that they could not attend," said Dave Parsons, a spokesman for the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. He explained that representatives from the Prime Minister's office told him that due to security concerns, Ariel Sharon could not meet or speak in large groups of people.
Parsons said that while he also requested that the mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, speak to the group, the mayor's office declined as well.
"We understood that there was pressure on him from the ultra-orthodox element not to attend," said Parsons.
A member of the Knesset's Christian Coalition added that he believed that Sharon's decision not to speak with the group was also politically motivated. "Sharon does not like these groups because a lot of these Christian Zionists did not support his disengagement," said the MK.
Although disappointed, Parsons said that the absence of political figures did not dampen the trip's mood.
The groups reach Israel separately; they all take part in a series of events based in the Jerusalem area. The highlight of the visit, said Parsons, was a march through the city of Jerusalem in festive costumes celebrating cultural elements of the countries.
"This is really a highlight for so many Christian pilgrims to get out and express their love," said Parsons. "We really had so many special pilgrims this year."
Over 500 pilgrims came from Finland this year, the largest-ever group from that country. There were also, for the first time, several pilgrims from Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It was very exciting to get people who wouldn't normally come to visit this beautiful country," said Parsons.
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