Room at the Inn
The Peace Doers blog for the month of April is focused on Tourism in Palestine. We begin with a guest post by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb.
There is room at the Inn in Bethlehem. Tourism to the Holy Land is increasing, yet it still far away from reaching the record high of the year 2000. As such, it is estimated that 2 million tourists will visit Israel and Palestine this year, 75% of who are Christian pilgrims. Pilgrims usually come to visit what is called the 5th Gospel, i.e. the Holy Land, so that they can better understand the first 4 gospels. Indeed, a pilgrimage to the places where Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead is a transforming experience that makes one read and understand the Bible in a new way.
However, visiting only the ancient stones and touring mainly archaeological sites, tourists miss out on encountering the living stones and where Jesus is dwelling today. The land, for many, remains faceless. The standard programs do not allow for any interaction to take place between the visitors and the people of the land. Being a Palestinian Christian who was born just a few meters away from the Church of the Nativity, I often watched tourists flocking to the narrow and low gate that marks the entrance to the Church. Less than 20 minutes later, I see them coming out, running into the bus, and hurrying on to their next destination. The Holy Land seems similar to a Christian Disney Land, tourists standing in long lines to visit many sites and ancient churches, and pilgrims running where Jesus walked.
The first time I met with a tourist group, I still remember the expression on their faces when they heard that I was a Palestinian Christian. I discovered they knew little about Palestinians in general, and almost nothing about Palestinian Christians in particular, let alone of their existence. Their first question to me was “when did you convert to Christianity?”. They assumed that Christianity was introduced to the Holy Land by missionaries from the Mid West. They were astonished to learn that my family has been Christian for almost 2000 years, and that the first missionary to come to our town was Jesus of Nazareth! They were even more bewildered to hear that I am not only Palestinian Christian, but also an Arab Lutheran pastor.
I wonder how many of the million tourists who are visiting the Holy Land this year will meet with local Christians, and how many will hear about their witness to Christ in the Holy Land today. It is a moving experience for pilgrims to walk the Via Dolorosa, carrying a wooden cross on their backs. Still, it is even more meaningful to hear first hand stories, genuine testimonies, and personal narratives by local Christians, who we call the 6th Gospel.
My encounter with such tourist groups convinced me of the need to develop a new theology of pilgrimage and a unique experience of the Holy Land. For this reason we opened in 1992 a boutique guesthouse and added to it this year a scattered hotel consisting of five newly renovated apartments for rent in the old city of Bethlehem. In 1999 we also started training Palestinian tour guides and this September are launching the first of its kind Bachelor Degree in sustainable cultural tourism at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture. Through our program of Authentic Tourism, we offer a holistic approach to tourism focusing not only on the Land, but also on culture and people. Pilgrims coming with us tour unique sites in the West Bank and areas that are usually avoided by traditional tourism. Our programs give them the once in a life time opportunity to experience vibrant cultures and traditions, folkloric dancing and Biblical meals, to meet the friendly people, and to enjoy their hospitality. The itineraries also acquaint them with the current realities as well as the original context of the Bible. Our newest program is an accredited study abroad immersion experience for European and American students to come and study together with our students at Dar al-Kalima University College.
It’s PalesTIME! And there is room at the Inn. You are most welcome. Click here to learn more!
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
President of Bright Stars of Bethlehem & Diyar