The sole way

Four Swiss Catholics on a seven-month pilgrimage arrived last week with the message that people can overcome differences.

L to R: Rutishauser, Mali, Aepli, Rutherman_521 (photo credit: Courtesy Jeremy Wimpfheimer)
L to R: Rutishauser, Mali, Aepli, Rutherman_521
(photo credit: Courtesy Jeremy Wimpfheimer)
This year, more than 3.1 million tourists visited Israel. Included in those numbers were thousands of Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land in search of a religious or spiritual experience. Coming to Israel from abroad usually involves some form of air or sea transportation. But for four devout Catholics from Switzerland, a true pilgrimage to Israel could only be done the old-fashioned way – on foot.
Arriving in time for Christmas, these pilgrims – two men and two women – trekked for seven months, covering 4,300 kilometers through 11 countries in a dangerous, life-altering journey to spread their message of peace and coexistence among the diverse peoples they encountered along the way.
Setting off from Switzerland on June 2, the travelers walked an average of 30 km. a day through Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria before arriving in Turkey, where they spent two months.
Despite serious concerns over the unraveling political situation, the group managed to enter Syria, where they stayed two weeks before crossing into Jordan on November 27. They spent three weeks in Amman documenting their travels for an upcoming book and were then joined by 30 other Swiss/German pilgrims on their last leg, which culminated in a December 21 arrival at Israel’s borders. From there, it was an uphill climb from the Dead Sea area to Jerusalem, and finally to Bethlehem in time for Christmas mass.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with the group on a stop at the desolate St. George’s Monastery in the middle of the Judean Desert. Despite their long and rigorous journey, the four appeared physically intact, bearing only minor blisters, and expressed without doubt how spiritually uplifting the experience was.
Franz Mali, 50, a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of theology and church history at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, was in charge of navigating the group’s route from start to finish, relying on, among other things, GPS and Google Maps.
While their walking path was mapped out, the pilgrims had no set arrangements for food and lodging along the way. Nevertheless, Mali said that “the hospitality all over the world was absolutely impressive.”
He stressed that the greatest revelation he had gained from the experience was that “God’s providence is always timely.”
“God is always there at the right moment,” he said. “If you need anything in your life, a bed to sleep in, something to drink, even if there is nothing around, when you need it, it will be there. I experienced this firsthand.”
When asked why they hadn’t used a more conventional mode of travel, Mali said the group had wanted to “express their authentic respect for the people of Israel.”
“We didn’t think it was enough to come by plane,” he explained. “We’re not tourists here to just take pictures, and for me, visiting Israel for the first time, I wanted to arrive on foot in order to approach the scene by truly getting into the experience.”
Christian Rutishauser, 45, is the program director of the Lassalle-House organization, which is dedicated to interreligious dialogue and social responsibility and which coordinated the pilgrimage. He asserted that “in making this commitment to come to the Holy Land by foot through many different landscapes and cultures, we hoped to show that even today, people can overcome their differences in a spirit of hope and mutual understanding.”
Rutishauser, who is also a Roman Catholic priest, a university professor and an official delegate of the Vatican for Jewish-Christian relations, came up with the idea of a walking pilgrimage nearly 20 years ago. However, his vision only started to take shape in 2009, when he, Mali and two female colleagues – Hildegard Aepli, 48, and Esther Rutherman, 43 – started the intense two-year process of planning for the trek.
Resting on a breathtaking ledge overlooking St. George’s, Rutishauser said he viewed the trip as a great success.
“The main purpose of a pilgrimage (especially over a seven-month period) is the inner process, with an emphasis on spiritual growth,” he said, noting that he had personally reflected on the will of God and how he could contribute to peace and justice in the world – issues he will commit himself to pursuing when he goes back home.
Both he and Mali admitted that there had been hardships along the route, including tensions among the four travelers – though Mali felt this was normal, since “you’re together with the same group of people night and day for seven months straight,” and said that despite this, the four had truly bonded.
However, none of those tensions could compare to the dangers they faced while navigating through Syria, as the travelers tried to avoid areas of conflict in a country undergoing a violent revolution.
In one hair-raising incident, a Syrian soldier in a local village, seeing four strangers arriving, brandished his pistol and demanded to inspect the group’s belongings. Not understanding his dialect – and at this point with the gun pointed in his direction – Rutishauser tried to calm the soldier down and explain the group’s purpose. After some tense minutes, the message that the four were not a threat came across, and the soldier put away his weapon.
According to the priest, the soldier must have made their presence known to high-ranking authorities after that incident, since an official government security force was assigned to protect the pilgrims as they made their way south toward Jordan. The last thing Syria would have wanted, Rutishauser speculates, was for the world to hear that four Westerners had been harmed while in the country. The security guards even lied to suspicious locals on the group’s behalf, saying they were Christian pilgrims in the country visiting the sacred monasteries in the town of Maalula, near Damascus.
The four were overcome with relief when they crossed into Jordan. They made camp in Amman, logging their experiences and waiting for their fellow pilgrims to join them.
Following Christmas in Bethlehem, they were scheduled to share their experiences at a major interfaith conference on modern-day pilgrimage on December 28-29 in Jerusalem, organized by Lassalle-House and the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute.
Elijah Institute founder and director Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein said that while pilgrimage was an aspect of religious observance typically associated with ancient times, this event proved that these journeys continued to hold a special message for people of all religions.
“These modern-day adventurers set out on an experience defined by spirituality and peace, and this week [at the conference,] we will look forward to saluting this remarkable accomplishment,” he said. “Their devotion and sacrifice proves that the spirit which defined the pilgrimages by foot of centuries past remains in our world today as a source of inspiration and hope.”
The group will spend its remaining time in Israel visiting holy sites throughout the country before heading back to Switzerland on January 6. Asked how they were getting home, Rutishauser smiled and said, “By plane – no more walking for us.”