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Chilean Miners Headed to Israel, Finally

After a delay of several months, the Chilean miners are officially on their way to Israel.

The 33 miners — who captivated much of the world last year with their rescue after spending 69 days trapped underground — will make the trip between February 23 and March 2. The visit, announced today by Israel’s tourism ministry, will include stops at the country’s major Christian sites, as well as the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesarea and Tel Aviv. The miners will attend a reception hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, and the trip even has an official name: “The Pilgrimage of Thanks in the Holy Land.”

The visit by the world’s most famous miners didn’t come without effort. Israel first extended the invitation last fall, but the miners drove a hard bargain, insisting that 37 of their relatives also be invited on the all-expenses-paid journey.

Despite the cost, the trip is probably a savvy move by Israel. The country has increased its efforts to woo South American tourists in recent years, given the continent’s growing wealth and large population of potential Catholic pilgrims. For several years, GoIsrael.com, the country’s official tourism website, has been available in Spanish and Portuguese, and last month the tourism ministry announced the creation of a new pilgrimage itinerary focused on the life of the Virgin Mary.

As with virtually everything connected to Israel, the miners’ visit hasn’t stayed free of politics. Palestinians have questioned Israel’s right to invite the miners to Bethlehem — in the West Bank — for their visit to the Church of the Nativity.

Rising diplomatic tensions between Israel and South America could also politicize the trip. Last month, Chile became the seventh South American country to recognize an independent state of Palestine, despite Israeli objections.

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