Pilgrims Wanted

Palestinians suffer as fear keeps Christians from a troubled region

text by Ben Cramer
photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Standing patiently with arms crossed in front of the Awad Tours Company, accountant Alex Irbib passes his morning watching a line of cars crawl through a narrow stretch of Azzahra Street in East Jerusalem. Mr. Irbib has become a fixture on the sidewalk now that the phones have stopped ringing and customers no longer visit the office of the tour agency.

“We have no business,” says Mr. Irbib, who has been with the Awads, a Palestinian family, since 1999. “Look at me. I’m standing here doing nothing.”

Inside the shop, brochures titled “Nazareth” and “Jerusalem” are stacked in tidy piles, seemingly undisturbed in weeks. Chairs sit empty behind four desks with computers. Upstairs, there are places – all empty – for four more people to work the phones and to coordinate logistics for groups visiting Israel and Palestine.

Since 1860 Awad Tours has survived by providing hotel bookings, restaurant reservations and transportation for large groups of Christian pilgrims, typically from Europe and the United States. But since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, the flow of the devout to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other places of Christian pilgrimage has shrunk to a mere trickle.

Awad Tours, says Mr. Irbib, is doing 10 percent of the business it did during the first part of 2000. In normal times, the company organizes visits for 10 groups per month. In the first half of 2003, it booked three.

Hard times. The economic fallout from the violence over the last three years has been felt by both Palestinians and Israelis. Hotels in Israel and Palestine have lost more than $2 billion in revenue since 2000 with many going out of business altogether. In February 2003 overnight stays by tourists hit their lowest level since the first Gulf War in 1991 when Iraqi Scud missiles threatened the skies.

The impact has been especially severe in Palestinian communities, where a majority of people are unemployed and Israeli restrictions on movement severely limit work opportunities. Over 40 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank are unemployed. The figure tops 60 percent in the Gaza Strip.

The crisis jeopardizes the region’s Christian communities in ways that go beyond economics. According to Christian leaders in the area, the absence of Christian pilgrims in the birthplace of their faith is having a troubling impact on local parishioners and even the hope for peace in the Middle East.

“Pilgrimage has almost totally stopped since 2000,” says Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah. “There are a few pilgrims coming here out of true conviction, but these are only small groups, primarily from Italy, France and Spain.”

Most of the facilities reserved by Christian pilgrims are empty. The Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, owned by the Holy See and located just outside the Old City’s New Gate, has a capacity of 280 guests. During normal times, the center was usually full, with would-be guests making reservations months in advance. But during one two-week stretch last summer, the corridors echoed with the footsteps of as few as two guests a night and, at most, 15.

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Tags: Palestine Pilgrimage/pilgrims Second Intifada