Religion

With pilgrimages on hold, Holy Land Easter programming fills a gap

(RNS) — Holy Week is typically a time when church groups flock to Israel to walk in the way of Jesus before his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

But not this year.

With the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and the fierce ground assault on Gaza that has followed, most U.S. church groups are staying put.

Only 23,700 Americans visited Israel in February, the last month for which data is available, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics. That’s down from 73,600 U.S. visitors in February 2023, a plunge of 68%.

Most of those who did travel were on solidarity or volunteer missions — helping Israelis recover from the Hamas assault that killed an estimated 1,200, took 250 hostages and destroyed many of the kibbutz settlements along Israel’s border with Gaza.

Among the Christians who did make the trip was the Rev. Franklin Graham, the CEO of Samaritan’s Purse. The Christian relief organization donated 21 new ambulances to Israel’s EMS fleet, known as Magen David Adom. While in Jerusalem this past January, Graham taped a 30-minute Easter special that will air at noon Easter Sunday on Fox News, Trinity Broadcasting Network and several other local TV stations and online. The Easter program from Jerusalem, a first for Graham, features singer-songwriter Michael W. Smith.

Franklin Graham, left, meets with staff from Magen David Adom, Israel's Emergency Medical System, that will recieve new ambulances to replace those destroyed by Hamas. (Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

Franklin Graham, left, meets with staff from Magen David Adom, Israel’s EMS fleet, that received new ambulances to replace those destroyed by Hamas. (Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“I would hope people would pray for Israel,” Graham told RNS. “They’re going through a very difficult time.”

Taped and livestreamed Easter specials are more common, especially post-COVID. The Christian Media Center, a Catholic outlet overseen by the Franciscan order, will livestream an Easter vigil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and a Mass on Monday from Nazareth.

The Christian Broadcasting Center, headquartered in Virginia Beach, is livestreaming an Easter sunrise service from the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, considered by some Protestants to be the empty tomb from where Jesus was resurrected.

Most Easter pilgrims however have decided to stay home. The U.S. State Department has an orange “reconsider travel” level 3 alert to Israel. Many regular airline carriers have canceled flights.

United Airlines resumed its Newark-Tel Aviv route earlier this month. Delta is only resuming flights to Tel Aviv in June and American Airlines in October. Americans can still fly on the Israeli carrier El Al or catch a flight to Israel through Europe, said Jill Daly, director of the Midwest Region for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

“I think we will see a resumption of tourism probably not until the later part of 2024 into 2025,” Daly said. Still, she added, her office is doing its best to try to woo travelers.

“We tell people asking, whether it’s the travel planners, travel agents or Christian pastors or synagogues, if you’re comfortable coming, come now. It is safe and there’s not as many tourists there.”

A delegation from the Center for Holy Land Studies, an arm of the Assemblies of God denomination, visited Israel in February and concluded it was safe.

“We didn’t have any feeling of tension whatsoever walking around the Old City in Jerusalem, around Tel Aviv or in the northern area of the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee),” said Jeremy Stein, a teaching specialist at the center.

Christians walk in the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Christians walk in the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Stein said the Center for Holy Land Studies typically offers 30 guided trips a year to the Middle East countries, with about 75% of those tours heading for Israel.

This year, there will be a trip to Israel in June by some Assembly members from the Springfield, Missouri, area where the 3 million-member U.S. church is based. After that, there’s a trip of church members from Washington and Oregon states planned for September, Stein said.

While Assembly church members typically spend Easter at home, trips to Israel begin picking up the day after Easter. 

“It’s our hope that people will start returning and understanding the reality of the situation a little bit more and seeing that it’s not as problematic or it’s not difficult for groups to be there and be safe,” said Stein.

Palestinian Christians may also be staying away from Jerusalem for entirely different reasons.


RELATED: Easter 2024 in the Holy Land: a holiday marked by Palestinian Christian sorrow


This past Sunday, Israel banned thousands of Palestinian Christians in the occupied West Bank from entering Jerusalem to participate in Palm Sunday celebrations. For Christians in Gaza, now under siege, travel to Jerusalem is impossible. On Friday, Al Jazeera reported that most Palestinian Christians from the West Bank are also facing severe restrictions on entering Jerusalem’s Old City for Sunday Easter services.

Graham said he wants to help Palestinians in Gaza, and not just Israelis. Israel’s massive air and ground invasion of Gaza has left more than 32,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory, most of them Muslims, though the enclave has a several hundred Christians.

Palestinians look at the destruction of the Al-Gatshan family building after an Israeli strike in Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on Dec. 18, 2023. Satellite data shows that one-third of structures across Gaza have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

Palestinians look at the destruction of the Al-Gatshan family building after an Israeli strike in Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on Dec. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

Graham said he has offered to set up an emergency field hospital in Gaza as well as providing materials for temporary shelter for people who have lost their homes.

“We have to work with the U.N. as well as with the Israeli government on these issues,” Graham said. “There are soldiers everywhere and you have to coordinate what you do with them so you don’t get your people in a dangerous position.”

Neither a hospital nor an emergency shelter will come together before Easter.

In the meantime, Graham said he would encourage Christians to visit Israel.

“There’s a lot of people we want to reach out to and help and encourage and pray for,” he said.


RELATED: More than 140 global Christian leaders call for Gaza cease-fire in Holy Week letter



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