Violence between Palestinians and Israelis has caused a "drastic reduction" in pilgrimages, an ecumenical delegation from Britain has reported after a visit to the Holy Land.

The high-level group, representing the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), called on churches in Western countries to try to help reverse the decline, which is having "catastrophic consequences" for workers in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

Among the 12 delegates were the Anglican Bishop of Exeter in England, Michael Langrish, and senior members of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland.

Bishop Langrish, an experienced visitor to the Holy Land, told ENI that his main impression this time had been "the silence" in places that are normally crowded with pilgrims.

"The Old City of Jerusalem was dead, with no economic activity," he said. "A pilgrim hotel was in darkness, and the owner told me that he hadn't had any visitors for several months. When I went to Calvary, I was the only person there."

In a two-week visit, members of the group went to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Delegation member Gillian Kingston, of the Methodist Church in Ireland, said: "We walked through the squalor of refugee camps and sat in the elegance of bishops' palaces."

The delegation met people ranging from government ministers to Hizbollah activists, from patriarchs and grand muftis to refugees in Beirut and Amman.

Among a 16-point set of "preliminary reflections" from the visit, the ecumenical group stated that violence—"whether from stick or stone, or lethally from tank and helicopter-gunship"—would not solve the Palestine-Israel crisis.

The unrest has so far claimed 455 lives, including 130 people under the age of 18, according to a reporter in the region for the London Guardian newspaper. The great majority of deaths have been of Palestinians.

The CTBI group described as "simplistic," calls from the Israeli government to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to "stop the violence." and said that the Israeli claim to have acted with restraint "does not bear examination."

The US and British governments were castigated for what were seen as one-sided policies in the Middle East. "All over the region the cry of 'double standards' is loudly heard, contrasting Western policy on Israel with that on Iraq and other countries which defy UN resolutions," said the delegation.

The group also sought to dispel the idea that the conflict was about religion: "In the region which is the cradle of the three great Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—religion is not itself a cause of conflict, and in many instances is a source of reconciliation.

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"A pluralistically minded Zionist Jew [said]: 'The land does not belong to us—we belong to the land—and the same can be said of Christians and Muslims'."

The organizer of the visit and a group member, Paul Renshaw—the CTBI's coordinating secretary for international affairs—told ENI that since the conflict pilgrim numbers to Israel/Palestine were down by 70 to 90 percent, and 20,000 hotel workers had been laid off.

He said: "Among potential visitors there has been a mass breakout of uncertainty [about whether it is safe to visit]. People are put off by what they see on the TV screen, but there isn't a war going on all the time.

"People might take another look. Certainly, the [Muslim and Christian] religious leaders are saying: 'Come and see us—we want you to see what's happening.' And of course they know where the safe areas are."

Bishop Langrish said he had thought hard about whether he could recommend visits to the Holy Land at present. The situation was changing all the time and people had to be aware, but it was important to remember that visitors were not the target: "Neither side has an interest in [targeting] any tourist."

He said he had been shocked by the breakdown of economic activity.

"In Gaza you could pick up beautiful flowers for a few shekels. They had been grown for export, but could not be sent out. Piles of strawberries and cucumbers could be seen simply rotting."

Both Renshaw and Bishop Langrish were concerned about the effect of the conflict on the local Christian communities. The Christian communities were losing members through emigration, Renshaw pointed out.

"On the other hand, some Christians can be counted on to stay. Some said to me: 'It is our calling to stay—whatever happens we must find our way'."

Bishop Langrish said the indigenous Christian communities of the Middle East saw themselves as "forgotten people."

The Palestine conflict did not involve only Muslim Arabs and Jews, he said. "Church leaders in the Middle East are saying: 'Come and see us—come and see the living stones.'"

The ecumenical delegation gave its findings to a CTBI church representatives' meeting held in Wales from March 30 to April 1. It plans to expand the 16 "preliminary reflections" into a detailed report.

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Previous Christianity Today stories about conflict in Israel and Palestine include:
Holy Land Roadblocks | Christian pilgrims learn about Palestinians' everyday indignities. (Apr. 9, 2001)

Christian Zionists Rally for Jewish State | More than 600 Christians from around the world flock to Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel as peace process collapses. (Apr. 9, 2001)

Between a Rock and a Holy Site | Muslims have stepped up their efforts to take control of places revered by Jews and Christians. (Feb. 13, 2001)

The Peace Regress | What's behind the current outbreak of hostilities in the Holy Land? (Jan. 11, 2001)

Conflict in the Holy Land | A timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world.

Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and War | Starvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)

Between the Temple Mount and a Hard Place | Palestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)

Messianic Ethiopians Face Discrimination | Sisters appealing decision to revoke Israeli citizenship. (Dec. 4, 2000)

Christmas Plans for Bethlehem Scrapped | Escalating violence cancels millennial celebration in town of Christ's birth. (Dec. 1, 2000)

Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)

Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)

Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)

Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)

How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)