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Christian pilgrims dip in the waters of the Jordan River during a baptism ceremony at the Qasr el-Yahud site, near Jericho, in January..(Photo by: MUSSA QAWASMA / REUTERS)
Increase in January pilgrimages to the Holy Land
Improved visa process has been a boon for Israel.
The situation in the Middle East hasn’t deterred Christian pilgrims from visiting the Holy Land, the Christian Information Center announced. 

According to Sobhy Makhoul, deacon of the Maronite Patriarchate of Jerusalem, there was a boom in pilgrimages at the end of last year, which has continued into 2018.

”Europeans are returning but not only [Europeans]. Chinese, Russian and Eastern European pilgrims are on the rise,” he told Herald Malaysia. “There is a great movement on the part of the Orthodox Churches, they come in hundreds and hundreds. The fact that Israel has facilitated the visa application for the Chinese has also had a positive impact. For example, those who have already obtained a European visa can enter Israel without problems. Many rich Chinese come here, some of these are Protestants.”

According to the Christian Information Center, which is sponsored by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and sits at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, there were 770 pilgrimage groups, which totaled 26,000 people, that came to Israel in January. In January 2017 and January 2016, Israel saw only 529 and 390 groups, respectively.

“The all-time record number of tourists visiting Israel this year is no accident,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said at the beginning of the month. “The actions taken by my ministry since I took up my position have brought Israel an unprecedented record in incoming tourism.”

In addition to the information provided by the Christian Information Center, the 2017 general tourism statistics showed that the top five countries of origin for tourists to Israel were the US, Russia, France, Germany and the UK, with 54% of incoming tourists being Christian (a plurality of whom were Catholic, and 25% visiting as pilgrims). Only about a fifth of all tourists were Jewish, with the remainder comprising other faiths or being non-affiliated. Some 41% of 2017 tourists had already visited Israel.

The deacon also said that not only were Christian pilgrimages on the rise, but so were Muslim groups coming to visit the Holy Land. Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey are some of the countries leading the pack, and this comes against the backdrop of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s meeting with Pope Francis on Monday, when the two of them spoke about ”the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.”

According to the deacon, the muted protests by the Palestinians over US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel have helped allay tourists’ fears of violence, which in turn lets the visitors help out local businesses.

“When the economic situation is positive, people live and work,” he said. “Fundamentalism and terrorism only take root where there is poverty and ignorance,” he told the Herald.

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