New Vatican envoy urges pilgrimages to Holy Land

Christians encouraged to visit Israel despite uncertain political situation.

tourism conference 298 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
tourism conference 298
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
The new Vatican ambassador to the Holy Land on Wednesday urged Christian pilgrims from around the world to visit the country despite the uncertain political situation between Israel and the Palestinians. "I will do whatever is in my power to promote and encourage pilgrimages to the Holy Land," Monsignor Antonio Franco said at a Jerusalem reception hosted by the Ministry of Tourism in his honor ahead of the New Year. Franco replaced former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Pietro Sambi who left Jerusalem earlier this year after being named the Vatican's ambassador to the United States. The event, which was postponed due to this summer's war in Lebanon, was attended by diverse heads of the Christian communities in the Holy Land, and saw black-hooded Orthodox priests standing next to Evangelical leaders. The reception, which doubled as a pre-holiday tourism promotion, came as Israel was hoping for a Christmas rebound from the steep drop in tourists following the war. "My sincere wish and hope is that in the coming year both Israelis and Palestinians will have a special blessing from heaven, and that all nations will rejoice in the peace of Jerusalem," Franco said. The Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said that pilgrims should come to the Holy Land specifically when the situation is difficult, bringing with them a message of peace and justice. "My hope is that the day will come when there are leaders on both sides who are strong enough to put an end to this tragedy we are living here," Sabbah said. The event brought the Latin patriarch, who is both the top Catholic official in the region and a Palestinian, face-to-face with Evangelical leaders, who he has publicly denounced as leading the world to armageddon by their strong support for the State of Israel. A call for interfaith dialogue by the Evangelical leaders following the unprecedented public tiff between the Christian leaders has gone unheeded, officials said. The best year for tourism to Israel was in 2000 when 2.7 million tourists visited the country. Last year, 1.9 million tourists visited Israel, with this year's figures expected to fall just short of that as a result of a steep 40 percent drop in tourism to Israel after the war in Lebanon. One in every three American tourists to Israel is Evangelical Christian. "Everybody should share the beauty and holiness of the Holy Land," Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog concluded.