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Among the faithful. Miguel Robleto, his wife, Marta, and a group of 110 Nicaraguans emerge from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on a sunny Friday morning. Dressed in white robes, the group files out of an early-morning Mass. As they do, a group of 55 Italians enters the chapel marking the site of Christ’s resurrection.

Two large groups of pilgrims sharing time at the church is a rare sight these days. As the group divides to pose for pictures, the smiling middle-aged Mr. Robleto explains his decision to come to the Holy Land very simply: “We are not afraid. We have faith in Christ.”

Father Fermin Muro of the Nicaraguan group says now may be the perfect time to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “Most pilgrims don’t have a lot of money,” the priest says. “The trip used to cost $5,000, but now costs only $1,500. These days people don’t have to spend as much money.”

The Nicaraguans’ visit exposes another reality of pilgrimage today in the Holy Land that concerns some in the Christian community. The group’s trip – like that of the Italians’ – is being handled by an Israeli company and they are being led through one of Christianity’s holiest sites by a Jewish Israeli. In fact, Jewish Israeli firms are winning the lion’s share of the business of Christian pilgrimage, thanks in part to Israel’s aggressive international marketing campaign to bring tourists to the area. The Israeli Tourism Ministry plans to inject $1.2 million in an overseas marketing campaign targeted in part at Christians.

Father Gockel says the few Christians who find the courage to visit the Holy Land are being shown the holiest Christian sites by members of another faith at a time when local Christians so need the support of the pilgrims.

He recalls visiting the house of a friend in Poland who had a certificate of pilgrimage framed on his wall. “I said, ‘This is so terrible. You’ve hardly seen the Christian sites and you didn’t meet any of the region’s Christians.’”

Back at the Awad Tours Company, it is nearly 12:30 p.m. and Mr. Irbib is preparing to close the shop for the day. Another day has passed without a phone call or a tourist popping in.

But as Mr. Irbib gathers his things, a woman unexpectedly enters from the street. He spins around, perhaps hoping for a chance at some business. Dressed in a light-colored head scarf, the woman extends her hand to ask for money. The accountant shakes his head kindly and shows her to the door. “Well, we do have some traffic. We get a few like this woman everyday.”

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Ben Cramer is a journalist and radio producer living in New York City.



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Tags: Palestine Pilgrimage/pilgrims Second Intifada