By Orit Farkash-Hacohen
Israel is more than just a country on the map. It is the Holy Land. It has been a place with religious significance for thousands of years and as such, it is also a place of pilgrimage. Traditionally, the winter holidays are a festive time with Christian tourists celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Jerusalem and the Galilee. Last week, I visited the churches in Nazareth and Kafr Kanna (associated with Cana in the New Testament), two places usually overrun by international guests. Not this year. COVID-19 forced millions of tourists to stay away, leaving the churches empty and holiday markets closed.
As Minister of Tourism, I have learned to further appreciate the meaning Israel has to Christian believers around the world, and how this translates into practical decisions. In 2019, for example, over two million Christian tourists chose the Holy Land as their holiday destination. This is a vote of confidence in us, and a sign that Israel is more than capable of providing an exciting, fun, and meaningful experience to people from a variety of ages and backgrounds.
More than before, walking through the festively-lit yet empty streets made it clear: tourists in general and Christian pilgrims in particular, are part of the scenery in Israel, and their absence is felt by many. Indeed, Israel looks forward to the resumption of international travel and the return of millions of Christians.
Today, Israel is on pace to be the first country to inoculate its population in large percentages. In less than three weeks since the beginning of the process, our health professionals have already administered some 1,700,000 vaccinations, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the population. By doing so, we are also preparing to open up the skies and allow tourists to come back.
As demonstrated over many years, Israel's ties with the Christian world are unbreakable – not even by a pandemic or an economic crisis. Many believers who came to Israel testified that their time in the Holy Land was not just a visit or a vacation, but a transformative, inspiring, and long-lasting experience. At times, it is seen as "a vacation beyond belief.”
In Nazareth, I visited the Church of the Annunciation and its iconic, 30-meter-tall Christmas tree. In Kafr Kanna, I stopped at the Franciscan Wedding Church and the Baptist Church, and met with fathers Haytham Heno and Simon Khoury, respectively. Only a few weeks ago I met Bishops from throughout the Galilee at Megiddo. All these sites - and many others - are ready, waiting for people to visit and pray once again. And, as the world prays for a better and healthier year in 2021, Israel looks forward to welcoming international tourists, including Christian pilgrims, back to the Holy Land.
Orit Farkash-Hacohen is Israel's Minister of Tourism and a member of Israel's National Security Cabinet
Why does Judaism matter and how is it connected to Christianity? Learn more here.