Israeli and Palestinian officials are prepared for a record-breaking three million tourists coming to the Holy Land, including a Lenten visit by Pope John Paul II in March. But Christians who live and work in the region are as preoccupied as ever with the survival of their community in a politically contentious environment.While many Christians around the world celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's birth, Arab Christians and Messianic Jews continue to find their place in Middle Eastern culture under a cloud.In Nazareth, Israeli Muslims and Christians are deeply at odds over the building of a large mosque adjacent to the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most significant sites of Christian worship in the region. Christian leaders took the unprecedented action of closing churches for two days in November to protest the Israeli government's support for building the mosque.But Christian tourists and pilgrims, eager to visit first-century archaeological sites, seldom interact with the worries of local Christians and their complicated political and religious relationships.Local Christians "don't know who we are anymore," says Elias Chacour, a Maronite Catholic and head of Prophet Elias College near Nazareth. "I carry the conflict. It's me, the conflict: Palestinian, Arab Christian, and citizen of Israel."Hating the Jews? We don't need that. On both sides, we have enough martyrs. We can't go back, but we can't go on as we are."In Bethlehem, stringent Israeli border controls have made life chronically difficult for Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, since the city itself came under the control of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, Palestinian tourism officials have invested millions of dollars into the local economy to entice visitors to the historic Church of the Nativity and possibly to spend the night in new hotel rooms near Manger Square."I am hopeful but not optimistic" about lasting peace, says Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian Christian and Jerusalem attorney. "[Prime Minister] Barak is not salvation."There are signs of hope in the community. Things are very different than 10 years ago."Among the changes of the past decade is the growth and expansion of Messianic Judaism. "Without the immigration from the former U.S.S.R., there would be no reason to talk about a significant increase of Jesus-believing Jews in Israel over the last ten years," says Torkild Masvie, director of the Caspari Center in Jerusalem.According to a comprehensive survey in 1999, there are 5,000 Messianic believers (3,500 adults) in 80 groups throughout the nation.Many Israelis oppose Messianic Jews or any Christian outreach. "Israel is eager to attract tourists," Stewart Weiss of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana observed last August in The Jerusalem Post. "But let us make one thing crystal clear to all our guests: We are not prepared to give away our souls." Within the past year, some Orthodox Jews attempted disruptions of Messianic Jews during worship services.However, local religious disputes are not disrupting efforts to accommodate visitors. Mideast tourism officials are prepared to assist Christians celebrating Holy Days all year long throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan.Timothy C. Morgan is Senior Associate Editor for Christianity Today.
See today's related story on pilgrimages, "Walking Where Lewis Walked | My reluctant entrance into the world of pilgrimage."Our past articles on pilgrims in Israel include:Jerusalem's Church Leaders Usher in Millennium Celebrations | Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox heads pray in Manger Square (Dec. 8, 1999)Nazareth Mosque Dispute Darkens Papal Visit To Israel | Vatican claims Israel is playing Christians and Muslims against each other (Nov. 30, 1999)Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning (June 14, 1999)
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