Meseznikov welcomes Christmas visitors, lauds PA help

Tourism minister calls on people of all faiths to visit Holy Land; lauds security cooperation in Bethlehem for Christmas.

Tourism Minister Meseznikov with Christian leaders 311 (photo credit: Tourism Ministry / Sasson Tiram)
Tourism Minister Meseznikov with Christian leaders 311
(photo credit: Tourism Ministry / Sasson Tiram)
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov hosted the annual Christmas reception for church leaders in Jerusalem on Monday.
At the reception and in a press conference beforehand, Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu) called on all people of faith around the world to come and visit the Holy Land and announced the anticipated arrival of 90,000 Christian visitors during the upcoming holiday season.
Carmel tour operators yearn for customers
Bethlehem tourism swells as violence and terror ebbs
At the press conference, Meseznikov chose to highlight the joint preparations made by Israeli and Palestinian authorities to enable free passage from Israel to Bethlehem and said that tourism is a “Bridge to peace” between the two nations.
“Tourism is a bridge to peace and dialogue among countries, and successful cooperation is in the common interest of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Tourism hastens economic growth, and creates jobs and well-being. Most importantly, tourism can also contribute to building trust between our nations as a basis for shared activity and cooperation,” Meseznikov said.
The minister spoke about the success of 2010 in terms of incoming tourists, expected to reach a record of 3.5 million entries by the end of the year, 2.4 million of them by Christians.
“2010 is a significant year for tourism in the Palestinian Authority as well. Some 1.2 million tourists visited Bethlehem, and a substantial increase is also evident in the number of tourists who stayed in accommodations there. Continued fruitful cooperation will lead to a rise in incoming tourism, for the benefit of all,” Meseznikov said.
Lt.-Col Ia’ad Sarchan, commander of the Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison office, presented a series of initiatives taken by the IDF to ease checkpoint crossing for Christian visitors and enable more people to take part in the Christmas festivities.
Sarchan said the IDF had conducted meetings with the PA security forces in order to enable easy passage of ceremonial processions into Bethlehem and had instructed the soldiers and officers manning the border crossings to be extremely sensitive in their treatment of pilgrims.
“We have authorized a series of trust-building steps for the holiday season, including the granting of entrance and continuous stay permits in Israel for people of the Christian faith for the next 30 days. We also authorized the passage to the West Bank of 500 Christians from the Gaza Strip, provided they are over the age of 35 and do not have any security problems,” Sarchan said.
The IDF also approved the passage of 300 Christian Palestinians to foreign countries through Ben-Gurion Airport and the admittance of 200 Christians from Arab countries into the West Bank through the Allenby crossing.
Sarchan said the security relaxations were the result of continuous cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and didn’t rule out that some of the easings would continue after the holiday season.
“The basket of easing measures depends on current security evaluations and can be reversed if the situation changes. It is important for us to strengthen the Bethlehem economy and that of the PA in general. Since the beginning of the year, 1.1 million tourists have entered Bethlehem and 1.5 million entered the PA as a whole,” he said.
Sarchan said that Bethlehem hotels were already packed and that pilgrims were forced to find accommodations in churches and guest houses in the city.
Metropolitan Christodoulos, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that he hoped that the foul winter weather in Europe would not prevent pilgrims from coming to Israel for Christmas. He thanked the Tourism Ministry for its support and reiterated the call for believers to come to Israel.
“The arrival of pilgrims is good for both the Israeli and the Palestinian economies,” said Christodoulos.
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, who oversees Israel, the PA, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt on behalf of the Franciscan order, said that 2010 saw the largest number of pilgrims in Israel’s history and stressed that the pilgrims came both from the West and from the developing world, places like South America, Asia and Africa.
“The Holy Land is becoming the heart of life for people of faith across the entire world. Christmas is a tradition of this land, and all the inhabitants can enjoy the atmosphere and message of peace that the season brings,” said Pizzaballa.
Jurgen Buhler, international director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, congratulated Israel on its record-breaking tourism year and encouraged continued cooperation with the PA.
“Each one of us came to Israel at first as a tourist and knows how meaningful the experience is. I praise the Tourism Ministry on its cooperation with the PA and think it should be expanded to the works of other ministries,” Buhler said.