(ENI)-Violence between Palestinians and Israelis has caused a sharp reduction in pilgrimages, says an ecumenical delegation from Britain after a visit to the Holy Land.
The high-level group, representing Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), called on churches in Western countries to help reverse the decline, which is having “catastrophic consequences” for the tourism trade 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.
Paul Renshaw, the CTBI’s secretary for international affairs, said that since the conflict began, the number of pilgrims to Israel and Palestine was down by 70 to 90 per cent, and 20,000 hotel workers had been laid off.
Bishop Langrish said that he was struck by the silence in places normally crowded with pilgrims, such as the Old City of Jerusalem, where he described one hotel in darkness and without patrons for several months. At Calvary, he added, he was the only person visiting.
The unrest has so far claimed 455 lives, including 130 people under the age of 18, according to an area reporter for the London Guardian newspaper. The majority of deaths have been Palestinians.
The CTBI group said calls from the Israeli government to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to stop the violence were simplistic and that Israeli claims that they have acted with restraint did not “bear examination.” They chastised the U.S. and British governments for what the group called one-sided policies in the Middle East.
One delegate said that Muslim and Christian leaders who know which areas are safe plead for visitors because they want people to see what is happening.
Bishop Langrish said he had considered whether he could recommend visits at present. The situation was constantly changing and people had to be aware, he noted, but it was important to remember that visitors were not the targets.