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Violence in the Holy Land is a matter of fact. Israel’s greatest concern is security, which has been heightened as a result of repeated terror attacks. Citizens are accustomed to bag searches and metal detectors when visiting everyday spots – shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas – which have been favored for attacks by radical Palestinian groups.

Palestinians, too, have a concern for security. In the Gaza Strip and in West Bank towns such as Bethlehem, danger often arrives in the form of Israeli military incursions.

Many within the Christian community, however, say the perception of danger is exaggerated. According to Mill Hill Father Guido Gockel, CNEWA’s former Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, the dangers in the Holy Land are unlikely to threaten Christian pilgrims. “The Christian Holy Land is as safe as visiting New York or Paris.”

“There are always going to be places where there is a certain amount of danger. But violent attacks happen in predictable places. If you follow the normal path of pilgrims, visit the normal sites, there is no more danger than anywhere else.”

A Christian duty. At his office in the Old City of Jerusalem, Patriarch Sabbah says that the presence of pilgrims amounts to a completion of the natural community in the Holy Land.

“Pilgrims should always come even in difficult times because they belong to the land as Christians,” he says. “They have to be present as we are present. We are a small community of Christians here, but the thousands of pilgrims in the world who form a daily presence here in normal times are an integral part of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

Father Gockel agrees. Even if danger did lurk in the paths of pilgrims, he says, their visits to the Holy Land are too vital to allow even the threat of physical harm to deter them.

“When you think about historical pilgrimages even as recently as the first half of the 20th century, those were dangerous trips,” says Father Gockel.

“People left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and many didn’t even make it back. They were often attacked, killed or shipwrecked. Travel then was much more dangerous than it is today. But people did it, trusting that somehow God would be at their side.”

The importance of the presence of Christian pilgrims, says Father Gockel, goes beyond bolstering the community economically by purchasing Christian-owned goods and services. For Christians throughout the world, a pilgrimage should be an expression of their faith and their solidarity with the global Christian community. “The Christians in the Holy Land are people who are very, very hurt. They have the sense they are forgotten and don’t exist for their Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere.”

Pilgrims today, says Father Gockel, “should say, ‘I’m going there because it’s important for me, it’s important for the church, it’s important for the people there. I want to go on this pilgrimage and God will provide and God will strengthen.’”

Pilgrimage may have an impact larger than most realize. “It’s my real conviction that the Christian community here has a critical role to play in bringing peace to the Holy Land,” Father Gockel says, “but they are suffering too much at this time to be able to play this role.”

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Tags: Palestine Pilgrimage/pilgrims Second Intifada