Tourism Minister urges Christians to extend hours at Holy Sepulchre Church

55% of tourists visiting Israel in 2019 were Christian, says Ministry of Tourism

Clergymen meet with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin at the Holy Sepulchre Church (photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)
Clergymen meet with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin at the Holy Sepulchre Church
(photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called on dozens of Christian participants at this year’s Christmas and New Year’s reception in Jerusalem to extend the hours of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site believed to be the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Currently the shrine opens at 5 a.m.; from October to March it closes at 7 p.m., and from April to September it closes at 8 p.m.
“Due to the increasing numbers of tourists we see in Jerusalem, we witness long queues and crowds in some of the holy sites, and especially at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said. “I would like to use this opportunity to ask for your goodwill in prolonging the opening hours of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It will enable the pilgrims to visit the church [for] longer hours, thus reducing the queues outside and inside the church.
“This will also contribute to the traders and restaurants in the area, and will improve dramatically the overall experience for the believers,” he added.
Levin said that Israel is expecting to welcome 4.5 million tourists by the end of 2019, up from 2.9 million three years ago. Of those, 55% are Christian pilgrims.
He likewise informed the audience, at the event at the David Citadel Hotel overlooking the Old City, that “the most important tourism infrastructure project that has ever been done in Israel, the cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City, is in great progress and has received the permits needed in order to issue the tenders for the construction.”
The cable car is expected to ferry some 3,000 people per hour between the Old City and the First Station, but is considered controversial due to the city’s disputed status.
“The cable car will supply the pilgrims that are coming to Jerusalem an outstanding view while they are traveling to the Old City, and will solve the huge traffic problems around the walls,” Levin said, ignoring efforts by some, including the European Union, to stop its construction.
Earlier in the day, Levin had sent an angry letter to the EU representative in Israel when he learned that the EU and the New Israel Fund were working together to fund a conference against the construction of the cable car.
“This is a gross and unacceptable interference in Israel’s internal affairs and its sovereign decisions,” Levin wrote in a letter published by the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.
Much of the conference, however, centered on efforts by the Christian community to work together to increase awareness of environmental issues in Israel and minimize the carbon footprint of its many pilgrims.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, followed in Pope Francis’ footsteps, when he said that, “we need to combine development and economic growth with respect for creation.”
Pizzaballa explained that it states in Genesis that man was given dominion over creation, “not to destroy it, but to cultivate and grow what God gave us.”
The pope has released an encyclical on climate and justice to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home,” calling for a “moral and spiritual transformation in our connection to Earth’s ecosystems.”
Pizzaballa said that in his opinion, the Madrid climate change conference, which took place earlier this month, was “unsuccessful” – but that this should not stop local efforts.
“Even in the world of pilgrimage, this sensitivity is making headway,” he said. “As the number of pilgrims increases... the desire for green pilgrimages is also increasing – pilgrims who want to stop in the desert, in open and natural places; groups that want to visit the Holy Land by bicycle or foot.
“It is not enough to see the places where Jesus was born, lived and breathed,” Pizzaballa continued. “We must also admire the beauty he admired.”
Others, however, used the platform before the tourism minister to express concerns that holy Christian sites are not functioning at their best. Patriarch Theophilos III, the Beatitude of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, bemoaned the limited fresh water access to the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration and the Eastern Sanctuary of the Orthodox Church situated atop Mount Tabor.
“We have already agreed with the government to undertake a shared project of complete renovation of the water system that supplies the monasteries,” he said. “We want all those responsible to take this into serious consideration and commit to being partners in this project.”
Furthermore, Fr. Afghan Gogchyan, a representative of the Armenian Patriarchate, noted that pilgrims coming from the Republic of Armenia are denied entry into the country.
“Common people who work hard all year to save money and afford airline tickets, come to the Holy Land to fulfill a requirement of their faith,” but are detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and “are put on the next airplane and returned to Armenia or wherever they come from.
“There is no explanation as to why they are not being admitted into the country,” Gogchyan continued, addressing Levin. “We would be grateful if you would look into this matter and provide a satisfactory solution.”