By Ken Reed
A new economic squeeze by Israel Government Tourist Office to exclude Palestine from Holy Land pilgrim tours has begun, aided by full page colour adverts in Church newspapers like the Anglican Church Times* and Roman Catholic The Tablet*, which appear to have been taken in. Seven UK and one Irish tour companies** are linked on a new website www.WalkWhereJesusWalked.com to sell IGTO tours for 4, 7, or 10 days. None of the tour itineraries includes Bethlehem, Hebron or Jericho or mention Palestinians. But parts of illegally annexed East Jerusalem feature, including the controversial 'King David's City' controlled by the Elad settlers, as well as Galilee, Tel Aviv and holiday resort Eilat. We do not yet know if Christian Churches condemn this initiative, as Jewish human rights organisations have done.
The IGTO initiative follows the Vatican Synod on the Middle East in which Pope Benedict XVI pleaded for recognition of the 'Living Stones' within Israel/Palestine, the dwindling population of Palestinian Christians. This was echoed by RC Archbishop Kelly of Liverpool, the English and Welsh Bishops' representative at the Synod and also Franciscan Father Pizzaballa, Custodian of Holy Places. But, as the international lay Catholic website Zenit regretted, how pilgrimages can support the local population was not explored. Since its establishment in 1970 the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Migrants has argued for responsible tourism in the world, including pilgrimages, but has somehow not yet dealt with the Holy Land.
Palestinians have now expressed concern themselves. Published in Palestine this week is Come and See: Guidelines for Pilgrimages jointly from Alternative Tourism Group (Bethlehem) and Kairos Palestine (joint initiative by the leaders of all 14 Christian Churches in Palestine taking its inspiration from anti-apartheid Kairos South Africa and has condemned the Israeli occupation as a sin). Their 24 page report argues that any pilgrimage which is not balanced and inclusive should not be recognised as a pilgrimage. It is the outcome of a Geneva forum of concerned organisations in May 2010 with 14 countries represented.
This augments the UK organisation Tourism Concern's 'travel dilemma' webpage for Israel/ Palestine, drawing on ATG's Code of Conduct towards responsible tourism and pilgrimages. By contrast, in 2009 the IGTO advertised widely in London Underground rail stations with a map promoting Israel, giving the impression that Palestine was part of Israel. It was eventually withdrawn after a storm of protests.
Protest does not always succeed. In October 2010, the inter-governmental OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) continued to hold its tourism conference in Jerusalem in spite of opposition.
Concern about the new website WalkWhereJesusWalked is being expressed by Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment (IMRI) which includes the two Jewish organisations Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), as well as Amos Trust (Anglican), Pax Christi (Roman Catholic), and Sabeel UK (Christian Ecumenical). The strong Jewish representation makes it harder for the IGTO to claim that criticism is 'anti-Semitic'.
*Church Times 8 Oct and website Home and Holidays web-banners; The Tablet 20 Nov
**The 8 companies are: ITS (Manchester); Longwood Holidays (Essex); Orientours/ Peltours (London N3); Pilgrim Tours (Dover); Travelink (London NW3); Lightline Pilgrimages (Essex); Map Travel (Dublin); Thompson Travel International (Portadown, NI); Worldwide Christian Travel (Bristol). All give the impression of Israel's total control and legitimacy since in their itineraries of these tours there is no mention of Palestine or Palestinians.