The shores of the Jordan River, Israel A pastor called white-robed Christian pilgrims to descend toward the water under a canopy of eucalyptus trees. One by one, the believers...
THE SHORES OF JORDAN RIVER, Israel A pastor called white-robed Christian pilgrims to descend toward the water under a canopy of eucalyptus trees. One by one, the believers vowed to renew their faith before they immersed themselves in the gentle flow.
The Yardenit baptismal site on the Jordan River in northern Israel had been deserted for much of the past four years due to fighting with the Palestinians. Foreigners put off plans for trips to the region, frightened by TV scenes of bombed buses and Israeli tanks rumbling through West Bank towns.
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But in recent months, during a relative lull in the fighting, a small number of tourists from around the world have begun returning to the Holy Land, many of them on religious pilgrimages.
As visitors to Israel have always done, they wander the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, home to some of the holiest sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Many also visit Masada, the desert fortress where hundreds of Jewish rebels committed suicide centuries ago rather than face defeat at the hands of the Romans.
Increasingly, however, these visitors are devout Christians looking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Their trips are often organized by tour companies that cater to church groups, and their itineraries are based on stories from the Bible. They get baptized in the Jordan River, sail on the Sea of Galilee and visit the olive grove where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
And they do not worry about falling victim to the violence that has kept other types of tourists away in droves.
“We have such a strong faith in God that we think he will take care of us because he knows … how we are closer to him when we’re here,” said Fran Anscon from Rockledge, Fla., as she floated on the Sea of Galilee in a “Jesus Boat,” a wooden boat similar to what archaeologists believe Jesus may have sailed in.
In the first nine months of this year, 1.2 million visitors came to Israel, a 52 percent increase over the same period in 2003. Prior to the outbreak of fighting in 2000, more than 2 million tourists visited the country each year.
“The state of Israel has a lot more to offer than a beach,” said Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra. “It’s easy for me to persuade those who want to see the history of Judaism and Christianity.”
On a recent visit, a group of 60 evangelical Christians from the southern United States crossed the Sea of Galilee a large lake on a “Jesus Boat,” singing the words to a 1970s pop song that tells the story of how Jesus calmed a storm here.
“Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water,” they sang. “… Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.”
The group’s guide, Ami Segal, of International Group Travel, pointed across the Sea of Galilee toward Tabgha, where the Bible says Jesus performed the first feeding of the multitudes. Nearby is the traditional birthplace of Mary Magdalene and the area where the Bible says Jesus walked on the water.
“Jesus was around here somewhere,” said passenger Don Master, 74, of Cocoa Beach, Fla. “I might have stepped on the same spot he stepped on. Oh, man.”
The boat docked at the northern end of the lake, at Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ miracles. Everyone huddled in the shade of an olive tree as Segal pointed to basalt ruins of a synagogue Jesus taught in, as described in John 6:59. Atop the dark stones sat the limestone foundations of another synagogue built in the fourth century.
A bus took the group up a hill covered with old olive trees. Standing at a shaded overlook on the Mount of Beatitudes, it was easy to imagine Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount to thousands below on the shores of the lake.
At the Yardenit baptismal site, near the town of Tiberias, buses fill the parking lot each day by 11 a.m., and the gift shop sells holy water from the Jordan River. White-robed crowds line up patiently to enter the water; even if they were baptized before, an immersion here reaffirms their faith. Those who arrive at Yardenit without clergy can request the services of a former Texan, Harold Small, a pastor who lives just up the road in Kibbutz Alumot. Experts say John the Baptist baptized Jesus farther south than Yardenit, close to where the river flows into the Dead Sea. But that area, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is generally off-limits to visitors, though pilgrims can request special permission from the Israeli military. The site is also accessible from Jordan.
But most Christians believe baptism has the same significance at any point along the river.
“You can just imagine all the sinners,” said McLean, “coming down to the water.”