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Sukkot and the Rise of Christian Tourism in the Holy Land

Thousands of Diaspora Jews are making their way to Ben Gurion Airport today, heading homeward after a Sukkot visit to Israel. And so are around 8,000 Christians who also fixed their visits to coincide with Sukkot.

The Christian Feast of Tabernacles, which comes from the same Biblical source as Sukkot, is the one Christian festival observed on a date set by the Jewish calendar. And each year for the last 30 years, it has become increasingly popular for Christians to mark the occasion in Israel.

The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem organizes a full program of events, including seminars, prayer meetings and trips. For many, the highlight is the annual march, during which people parade through Jerusalem in their national costumes waving flags. During this year’s march, which took place last Tuesday, there were contingencies from America, Nigeria, Russia and dozens of other countries.

The pilgrims prayed for peace, including in a mass choral prayer service titled “Prayer for the peace of Jerusalem,” which was broadcast live by the British channel GOD TV. But while the peace that many international observers foresee for Jerusalem involves dividing the city, the worshippers had a rather different vision in mind. Many pilgrims wore t-shirts emblazoned with slogans calling for Jerusalem to remain entirely under Israel sovereignty — taken as given this is a kind of caretaker government until the Second Coming. One of the organizers wrote [this op-ed[(http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1254393088098&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull) in the Jerusalem Post laying out the view that dominated celebrations.

What is interesting is that reports (e.g. here and here) indicate that visitor numbers were high and so was revenue.

On one hand, this is a triumph for Israel; on the other, it underscores a failing of the country. Cast your mind back to the Pope’s visit to Israel in May. It wasn’t until May 3 that the Foreign Ministry released the following statement:

The Government of Israel has just inaugurated a special Web sie dedicated to the upcoming pilgrimage of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Israel, set to take place between the 11th and 15th of May, 2009.

A full eight days ahead of the visit! Golly… the biggest celebrity of the Christian world, the ultimate magnet for pilgrims, and it wasn’t until eight days before he arrived that there was a special Web site up. It could have been up minutes after the trip was announced, doing a hard sell to potential pilgrims.

The popularity of the Tabernacles celebrations, even in tough economic times underscores the fact that Christian pilgrims will visit Israel through thick and thin, if given the right encouragement. And it shines a spotlight on the difference between the effectiveness with which the relatively ill-resourced International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and the mighty Israeli government manages to provide this encouragement.

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