With discovery of ancient church, Israel banks on Christian tourism

jerusalem | It may not qualify as a miracle, but an exceptional archaeological find in the Megiddo prison in northern Israel could prove to be a tourism bonanza for Israel.

“This finding may attract millions of Christian pilgrims to Israel,” Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson said.

Through September, some 1.4 million tourists have visited Israel this year. In 2000, before the Palestinian intifada began, tourism reached an all-time high of 2.67 million visitors.

The archaeological find was impressive: Inmates at the prison uncovered the remains of a 1,700-year-old church during an excavation designed to clear the way for a new prison wing.

The mosaic floor decorated with Greek inscriptions, as well as remnants of an altar decorated with fish — a Christian emblem that preceded the crucifix — raises hopes that these are remains of “the oldest church in the world,” Hirschson said.

But can one develop a world tourism center within a prison compound?

“No, we’ll move the prison,” he said.

Noa Sher-Greco, who served as the Tourism Ministry’s representative in Italy, said that the importance of religious tourism shouldn’t be underestimated.

“When I served in Italy, they displayed an exhibit with the supposed shroud of Jesus. Some 2 million people visited the place in two weeks,” she said.

Israel offers the Christian pilgrim a journey into the past that can’t be matched elsewhere, she added. In addition to Megiddo — the biblical Armageddon, site of the projected doomsday conflict in the New Testament — pilgrims have no lack of historic sites.

A standard seven-day tour takes the religious tourist to Caesarea, capital of Judea under the Romans; Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth; the Sea of Galilee; Tabgha, site of the miracle of fish and loaves; the Church of Multiplication, with its fourth-century mosaic floor; Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; the Banias spring and waterfall, where Peter made his great confession; the Jordan River; and, of course, Jerusalem.

But there’s a catch: Christian pilgrims, especially Catholic, don’t consider the tour complete without a visit to Bethlehem, known as Jesus’ birthplace. For most of the past five years, Bethlehem, which is part of the Palestinian Authority, has suffered from lawlessness and violence.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry has set up a special coordinating body with the Palestinian Authority to reduce potential danger, but Catholics were among the first to begin avoiding the Holy Land following the outbreak of the intifada, dropping from 32 percent of tourists in 2000 to just 10 percent in 2003 and 12 percent in 2004.

The number of Christian tourists overall has been climbing again as violence has ebbed, and last year 46 percent of tourists to Israel were non-Jews.

Hirschson is not deterred by criticism of controversial evangelical preachers who visit Israel, or possible objections from fervently religious circles.

“I’m not a theologian, I’m the minister of tourism, and I’m not interested in the politics of our tourists as long as they come here,” he said. “They come here as tourists, and they’re friends of Israel.”