Pilgrims return to the Holy Land in record-breaking numbers. According to figures released to SIR by the Franciscan Pilgrims Office (FPO), regulating Holy Mass service, Holy Hours and prayers in holy sites run by the Custody of the Holy Land, a total of 538,429 pilgrims visited the sites (until today), in 2017 they totalled 411 754, while the previous year, they amounted to 274 983. The greatest numbers of pilgrims arrive from USA (127 964), followed by Italians (60 417), Poles (50 707) and Indonesians (30 813). The figures, states the FPO, refer only and exclusively to pilgrims who booked a liturgical service online in shrines run by the Custody. These figures don’t include simple visitors and groups of pilgrims, which did not make reservations but were still able to attend the celebrations in the shrines of the Custody. The figures are an interesting indications, but they don’t cover the overall number of visitors and pilgrims, which is thus predictably higher.
October, record-breaking month.The overall data on tourist arrivals in the period January-October 2018 was provided yesterday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Figures highlight 3 399,300 arrivals, with a 15% increase compared to the same period in 2017 (2 966 000) a 44% (2 364,700) increase compared to 2016. As relates to tourists from Italy, 114.700 arrivals were registered in the first 10 months of, 2018, +39% compared to 2017 and +80% compared to 2016. The month of October saw as many as 484,900 international arrivals, 14% more compared to October 2017, which remains the month with the highest number of tourist arrivals. However, according to the FPO, the numbers released by the Israel Tourism Ministry provide a partial picture of pilgrimages to Holy sites. In fact the Ministry cannot distinguish between the various destinations of visitors, if not in general terms.
Long lines. Over the past days the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem leading to the Holy Sepulchre, to the Western Wall, the Via Dolorosa, have been crowded with pilgrims. Today, despite the rainfall, people have been standing on long lines since early morning hours to enter the Holy Sepulchre church and climb the stairway to the Chapel of Calvary. Groups of faithful gather in prayer or attentively listen to their guides, and many queue outside, waiting to enter, amidst a never-ending succession of Masses and liturgies.
The same scene is repeated in every shrine of the Holy City, as well as in Bethlehem, Nazareth, up to Mount Tabor. At the Transfiguration shrine taxis can be seen bringing pilgrims back and forth, and many pilgrims climb up on foot. Hotels and reception facilities all fully booked throughout, which is “unprecedented in this season of the year” and soon it will be Christmas. Souvenir shops welcome pilgrims with incense and rosaries, many of them enter for purchases before their return home. Hanna, the owner of one of these small shops selling religious paraphernalia, said with a smile, “It’s thanks to God. We hadn’t seen so many faithful as we have this year. Jerusalem needs her pilgrims, because they bring happiness and peace. And we need peace more than anything else.” Further along the road, some Israeli soldiers limit themselves to controlling arrivals and entrances inside the basilica. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism expects to exceed 4 million arrivals by the end of 2018.
“A strong bond with Italy.” Security concerns, tensions caused by clashes in Gaza and by the armed conflict in Syria, which over the past years had discouraged the arrival of pilgrims, now seem to have disappeared. “The Holy Land is a safe place to go”, pointed out Msgr. Giuseppe Favale, bishop Conversano-Monopoli, presently in the Holy Land (November 16-24) with 138 pilgrims from his diocese. “There is no danger, it is totally safe here for pilgrims. The people are warm and welcoming and they look forward to our arrival.” “The presence of pilgrims here is a source of hope and a concrete form of support also for Christian families, many of which work in the religious tourism and pilgrimage sector.” “In the past days the group of pilgrims visited and prayed in holy sites, said Msgr. Favale, “we have also seen the poor living conditions of Palestinians and the living stones of this land, our Christian brothers.” The pilgrimages along the Sites of Jesus, the prelate added, clearly convey “the close bond between Italy and the Holy Land, initiated by the Custody of the Holy Land. Here we feel at home. At the same time, we rejoice in the breath of the universal Church. Visiting the Holy Land also means breathing the Catholicism and the universalism of the Church.” Solidarity pilgrimages are being promoted by Caritas Italy, currently working on a project to promote a new form of pilgrimage with the purpose of contributing to the development of local parish communities, thereby reducing their isolation, raising Italian pilgrims’ awareness of the social and political environment and furthering solidarity towards Caritas Jerusalem, partner of the project.
Ambassadors of peace. “Seeing so many pilgrims is a great consolation for us. They are ambassadors of peace. Their presence here is good for our faithful who don’t feel abandoned – Msgr. Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, Patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine – told SIR. Pilgrims are respected and welcomed by everyone because those who seek God seek peace. We can define it ‘pilgrimage diplomacy’: the more the pilgrims, the greater the prayers, the greater the chances for peace. It’s the gift we all invoke, especially now as we are preparing for Christmas.”