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In March 2007, I joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land organised by the Coventry Diocese. We landed at Amman Airport late on a Sunday evening. Entry formalities were minimal and our coach was soon heading north along the King's Highway, where the modern road follows an ancient caravan route across high ground, running parallel to the River Jordan.
Our guide, a Palestinian Christian, pointed out clusters of city lights on the horizon, Bethlehem at 11 o'clock, Jerusalem straight ahead. Two thoughts struck me, firstly these cities, their names as familiar from the daily news media as from the bible, were real places, we were within sight of them and about to walk their streets; and secondly they were astonishingly close to each other and to us, despite the fact that we were not actually in Israel, but across the border in Jordan. Geographically these are very compact countries, hence the competing demands for land and natural resources, leading to ongoing conflict.
After a few days in Jordan, we entered Israel by crossing the Allenby Bridge, the original Bailey bridge that has served as a crossing-point between the two countries since the 1940's. Security is tight, much of it exercised by stern-looking young Israeli women in army fatigues. Each of us was asked the reason for our visit and how long we had known the rest of the group, giving the stock answers that we had come to visit Christian sites and that we had known one another for a couple of years or so, very "or so" in my case!
Two of our number, the Archdeacon leading the pilgrimage and one of its female members, perhaps significantly the one with the most eye-catching pink jacket, were taken aside to be questioned separately, an anxious moment for them and for the rest of us. Happily they returned within a few minutes and we were allowed to join our new guide and driver and go on our way aboard our new coach, "The Nazarene".
Jericho was our first port of call for lunch and a cable-car ride up the spectacular Mount of Temptation to the Greek Orthodox monastery clinging to a rocky ledge high above the surrounding plain. One of the few remaining monks kindly showed us round, but his manner changed abruptly when he saw a group of youngsters outside as we were about to leave and he yelled at them in no uncertain terms. It seems that local youths are making the monks' lives a misery, by ringing their door-bell and taunting them when they answer it.
It was dark when we arrived at our Jerusalem hotel, the Golden Walls, near the Damascus Gate into the old city. Bedrooms assigned, our hosts offered us a plentiful selection of dishes from a typical Middle Eastern buffet, leaving time for those who wished to walk into the old city after dinner and visit the Western Wall, no longer called the Wailing Wall since Jerusalem is occupied by the Israelis. This became a nightly routine for many of the group and felt safe, given the security checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers, through which we had to pass, offering our bags for inspection, before reaching the inner precincts of the city.
The next morning, our coach took us to the summit of the Mount of Olives and we retraced the route followed by Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, pausing to pray at the Dominus Flevit Chapel, where he wept over Jerusalem. The phrase "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" has never had greater resonance than at that moment, when we looked across to the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the spire of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre beyond it and the Golden Gate, sealed in the Roman wall below, only to be opened to admit the Jewish Messiah at his coming, the expression in one panoramic view of the rivalry between the three monotheistic world religions, for which Jerusalem is the Holy City.
Descending the Mount of Olives we reached the Garden of Gethsemane and Church of All Nations. The gnarled and ancient trees, some of them at least a thousand years old, if not two, were a poignant sight. Very little imagination was needed to picture the scene when Jesus came to pray in the garden on the night before his trial and Crucifixion.
Across the Kidron Brook, the Church and courtyard of St. Peter Gallicantu, set above an ancient dwelling with a dungeon built into the city wall and thought to be the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where Jesus may have been held prisoner overnight after his capture, were equally evocative of the Gospel accounts of the Passion and St. Peter's denials of Jesus.
Things were less clear-cut elsewhere in Jerusalem, there being two purported Upper Rooms and two separate sites for the Resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb outside the city walls.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, provided unequivocal and harrowing evidence from the Holocaust, and helped me understand what can seem to be baffling intransigeance and wilful insensitivity to the plight of their Palestinian neighbours on the part of the Israelis, especially the ultra-orthodox groups, who are exempt from taxes and military service and whose thinking is based on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament regarding land ownership. United Nations resolutions carry no weight in their eyes.
It was a relief to leave the city behind and head for the beauty and tranquillity of Galilee. The Mount of the Beatitudes and the lake shore at Tabgha, where St. Peter was commissioned to "feed my sheep" were among the most untouched and compelling of the many places we visited.
On arrival in Bethlehem, we took some time to pass through a military check-point in the great wall built to cut off the Palestinians from Israeli held territory, including their own fields and olive groves, which become forfeit if not cultivated. Once through the wall, we climbed to the Shepherds' Fields, where the cave in which shepherds and their flocks have sheltered over the centuries has been furnished as an informal chapel in which we took communion.
Our next port of call was the store of the Palestinian Olive Wood Co-operative, where we spent a happy hour shopping for mementoes of our trip and gifts for family and friends, the familiar little olive wood crosses, which reminded us of dear Trevor Turner, as well as delicately carved crib scenes and Christmas tree ornaments.
On our way into town to visit Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity, we called at the Syrian Orthodox Christian School, to meet some of the "Living Stones" of the Christian faith and give them the stationery and crayons we had brought with us. We were greatly impressed by teachers and pupils alike, who learn both Aramaic and English from the age of 6. News from the school reached me only last week, reporting growing numbers of pupils, bringing the school roll to over 300, of whom 97% are Christian and 3% Muslim.
Looking back on my experiences as a pilgrim, I would hesitate to claim that I had been a peacemaker. Our group travelled in a spirit of peace and friendship certainly and tried to show a proper degree of respect at the sacred sites we visited and towards all the people we encountered and especially the local Christians, the "Living Stones" who have a hard time of it, both as Palestinians and as a religious minority, even though they are among the very few Christians who still speak Aramaic, the original language of the Gospels.
Hopefully we made a useful economic contribution as tourists in the places we visited, and all our dealings with local people were positive, but by far the greatest gain was to ourselves, through experiencing the places where Jesus lived, taught and died, enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims and deepening and enriching our faith.
We were blessed in that we had excellent guides and were received everywhere with warmth and hospitality. We were not unduly hindered by border security and were able to worship freely at each Gospel site. I hope the same will be true for the St. Bride's Pilgrims. We have been asked to post a daily blog with pictures, which we shall try to do, so that those of you staying at home can share in our journey. Please remember us in your prayers.