Israel gears up for influx of Christian pilgrims to West Bank

Hundreds of thousands expected to visit Israel in the coming year, following Pope Benedict XVI's visit.

pope pilgrims 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
pope pilgrims 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF has beefed up security measures - and its Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria has even published an English-language tourist brochure - amid expectations that hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims will visit Israel in the coming year, following Pope Benedict XVI's visit last week. According to Dr. Itzik Magen, chief archeologist for the Civil Administration, there are some 235 churches and monasteries in the West Bank. Many were uncovered in recent years by Magen and his staff, who work together with the Israel Antiquities Authority. The newest archeological spot, which will officially open during a state ceremony on June 4, is at the Inn of the Good Samaritan, off the Jerusalem-Dead Sea Highway. Although the site has been a tourist spot for many years, Magen led a team that recently completed excavations at the site, unearthing Second Temple-period remains and a church from the Byzantine period that became destination for Christian pilgrims. The Civil Administration has also built the only museum in Israel for Jewish, Christian and Samaritan mosaics, and will allow Christian groups to hold mass there. "This is a very important site for Christianity," Magen told The Jerusalem Post. "We dug there for 10 years and this is the first time that the site will officially be opened for pilgrims." Another site Magen plans to open in the coming months is a temple modeled after the Temple in Jerusalem and used by Samaritans on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. In conjunction with the papal visit to Israel, the IDF also decided to open a site at the southern end of the Jordan River known as Qasr al-Yahud, where, according to tradition, John baptized Jesus. The site is located on the eastern side of the border fence with Jordan even though it is officially in Israeli territory, and has been closed for years. "We expect hundreds of thousands of people will come over the coming year to visit these new sites," Magen said, adding that the Civil Administration was aware that a single terror attack could prevent this from happening.