Mining Faith in the Holy Land

Chile’s rescued miners come to Israel as guests of the Tourism Ministry, but find some skepticism surrounding the government-paid pilgrimage.

Chilian Miner (photo credit: Reuters)
Chilian Miner
(photo credit: Reuters)
OBLIVIOUS TO THE POLITIcal jousting surrounding their visit, 25 of the 33 Chilean miners who spent more than two months trapped in an underground mine in San Jose until they were freed on October 13 came on a personal and emotional eight-day pilgrimage of thanksgiving – at the invitation of the Tourism Ministry.
At a February 23 press conference with the miners, one jaded Israeli journalist asked Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov how he could justify such an expenditure with the government’s deficit and, besides he said, wasn’t it all just clearly a public relations ploy? The question was asked in Hebrew – which the miners do not understand – and answered by Misezhnikov also in Hebrew.
The translation into Spanish was kept short and succinct, with an explanation that the question had to do with “internal politics.”
While admitting the visit was an opportunity to show Israel in a positive light, Misezhnikov said it was a tribute “above all to the triumph of the human spirit. We admire this group who fought for their lives with clarity and human spirit while underground,” the minister said. “So this is part of the reason to bring them to the Holy Land so they can thank their God for the rescue and we can show them how much we respect and appreciate their human strength.”
Journalists also questioned the invitation in light of the fact that in January Chile became the fifth South American country to recognize “Palestine” as an independent state. Ministry of Tourism officials noted that the miners were here on a private visit and not as representatives of their government.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in early March.
Not to be left behind, Palestinian diplomats in Santiago complained to the Chilean Foreign Ministry that the visit was being touted only as a “visit to Israel” when their itinerary also included a visit to Bethlehem, a city in the Palestinian West Bank.
In November, Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian group, which earlier issued a document of the same name against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and calling for international support in opposing it, issued a letter to the miners urging them not to accept the Israeli invitation or to combine their visit with visits to Palestinian areas using Palestinian guides.
With between 350-500,000 Palestinians, Chile has the largest Palestinian population in Latin America. Estimates for the number of Jews living in Chile range from 23,000- 75,000.
THE MINERS, WHO CREDIT their faith in God and daily prayers for saving them, said they did not want to get entangled in politics of the area.
They said they were simply grateful for the opportunity to come to the Holy Land to pray and to give thanks at the holy sites, something which they would never have had the chance to do otherwise.
“We are neutral,” said Franklin Lobos, 53, a former professional soccer player, who was number 27 to be rescued and who had been working in the mine only four months when it collapsed. “More than anything this is a pilgrimage to see the holy sites. I hope it will not be used for any other purpose by anyone. We have come to enjoy the wonderful sites here, not to get into politics. All the trips have been nice, but this is the most beautiful.”
Since their rescue, the miners have traveled to various sites as special guests, including to Disney World and to England, where they met the Manchester United soccer team.
One miner who said that the music of Elvis Presley helped sustain him during his ordeal was given a private tour of Graceland, Presley’s home.
Among the sites the miners said they were most eager to visit was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa and the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Their itinerary also included the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Christian holy sites on the Mount of Olives and in the Galilee, Masada, the Dead Sea, Nazareth and Tel Aviv. They also were greeted in a special ceremony by President Shimon Peres.
As politicians and other pundits verbally jabbed at each other over the visit, pilgrims blew the miners kisses and shopkeepers applauded them at the start of their pilgrimage on the Via Dolorosa.
They received an equally warm welcome from shopkeepers and pedestrians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, as they walked through the market. A representative of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism greeted them on their arrival and a Chilean Franciscan monk guided them through the Church of the Nativity. At Masada the next day they were serenaded with cheers of “Chile” by groups of Israeli school children there on class trips.
The miners took in stride the jostling and pushing of the photographers and TV cameramen as they walked down the Via Dolorosa. Though they had little opportunity to see what they were passing or to stop and reflect on the holiness of the sites they saw, they said they had grown accustomed to the media attention following the initial shock after their rescue.
“[The attention] is totally normal,” said Mario Gomez, speaking after several minutes of silent prayer in front of the altar at the fourth station of the Via Dolorosa were Jesus is said to have met with the Virgin Mary. At 64, the salt-and-pepper-haired Gomez was the oldest of the 33 miners and the ninth to be pulled out in a special capsule. “I never say no to an interview because it lets us express our feelings and the journalists speak it and the world hears.”
Many of the miners, including Gomez, are getting professional help to overcome their trauma; the group was accompanied by a social worker. Gomez noted that though it may take several months to a year, he was sure they would be able to overcome their difficulties. None of the miners have returned to the mines to work, and, Lopez noted, since most come from different cities they are usually not in touch with one another.
“We want to thank God for all that he did for us. Our faith and hope was fundamental for our survival,” said Gomez. “It was a miracle.
There is one being who could achieve that and that is God. He gave us a second life.
When we exited the capsule, we returned to being ourselves.”
Most of the miners were accompanied by spouses or girlfriends. Richard Villarroel, 26, and his wife Dana Castro, 26, brought their four-month-old son, Richard, who was born six days after Villarroel was rescued.
Couples stayed close to each other, holding hands, touching shoulders. The wife of one of the miners was visibly overcome with emotion, wiping away tears, as she bent over the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition holds that Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion.
“We prayed every day. I lost count of the number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers we said. The prayer gave me strength to not despair,” said Villarroel, who carried his son in a baby carrier on his chest covered with a Jewish prayer shawl he had bought at the entrance of the Old City in order to shield the baby from the sun. This garnered him extraordinary attention from photographers as they walked down the Via Dolorosa. “Being here is something you can’t even dream about.”
Following the February 23 press conference, Juan Carlos Aguilar Gaete, 49, number 29 to be rescued, and his wife Cristy Coronado, 40, stood in a corner of the hotel balcony rooftop away from the flurry of TV cameras and photographers jostling to get good positions for stand ups.
“We accepted what we went through with great faith and we want to come here to thank God for protecting us,” said Aguilar Gaete quietly, noting the importance of their regular prayers while trapped. “We always had faith that God would get us out. If God gave us the chance to be here and bring something to humanity, I would like it to be for the unity of humankind and for an end to war, but not for me to be a role model. That is too big of a word.”