December 25th, 2011
05:00 AM ET
By Izzy Lemberg, CNN
Jerusalem (CNN) –– In appearance they could have been the Hell's Angels, revving their flashy motorcycles to deafening levels, but on closer look at their leather jackets and tattoos suggested they were on a mission from heaven. Crosses and stars of David were emblazoned on their jackets. One rider had a tattoo of a menorah. They were preparing to ascend the snaky road up to the holy city of Jerusalem.
These were American pastors who are also Harley-Davidson enthusiasts. They came with their motorcycles as part of an Israeli Tourism Ministry initiative to attract Christian tourists to visit the Holy Land.“This morning we had our church service at 7 o’clock out on the Sea of Galilee. We were talking about Jesus walking on the water; just the thought of us being where Jesus was means so much to us as Christians” said the Rev. Gary Burd of Texas, who led the tour.
The Rev. Earl Owens, sporting a long, graying beard, was sitting on his Harley preparing to take off for his next destination.
“The Bible means more to me now than it did before I come here, " he said, because I am actually seeing the word that’s open in the New Testament. I am actually seeing that in the places that he walked, and the stories and the words that are in that Bible means much more now than it did then,” he said.
That kind of sentiment is becoming an advertising tool for Israel’s Tourism Ministry.
Of the record-breaking 3.5 million visitors expected in 2011, two-thirds are Christians, according to tour operators. The Bible is the draw and the Tourism Ministry, which has earmarked $70 million for marketing, has come up with slogans such as, “Come to Israel: Where the Bible Comes Alive.”
“We are focusing very much on what we call decision makers, meaning we are focusing on pastors, Christian organizations - utilizing the different Christian media vehicles as well,” said Oren Drori, a high-ranking tourism official.
The influx is not confined to visitors from the United States. Standing in front of the Western Wall, inside Jerusalem’s Old City, a large group of Malaysian Christians pose for a group shot. They then proceed to put notes into the cracks of the wall, a customary gesture seeking God's blessing, healing or peace. Nearby, a group of Russian Orthodox tourists listen intently as a tour guide explains, in Russian, the history of the place.
Nearby at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which many Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, a steady stream of visitors enter, many lighting candles and pausing to pray.
"They are really coming from all over the world. It's Americans, Europeans. It's Asians and Africans,” Drori said.
Christmas is an especially meaningful time for pilgrims. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, near Jerusalem. For many Christians, being in the place of Jesus’ birth at this time of year is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Chris McNiven, however, is on a repeat visit - to see friends and be in the Holy Land in time for Christmas.
Standing in Manger Square opposite the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto that Christians believe is the location where Jesus was born, McNiven gave his spiritual perspective on the place: “There is a rooting, a coming back to the root of the whole matter. When I walk in to the Church of the Nativity and through the grotto, it is both sobering and exciting, it’s a changing experience. I think it's formative for people of faith to be here, specifically at this time.”
To be sure, the Tourism Ministry is not promoting Israel as a Bible-only destination, leaving out Tel Aviv’s beaches and the Red Sea resort of Eilat. On its website, Tel Aviv is marketed as a gay-friendly city with a vibrant night life.
The cancellation of visa requirements for Russian and Ukrainian tourists has vastly increased the number of travelers from those countries, who in addition to visiting biblical sites enjoy the beaches, especially in Eilat. Tour operators will point out, however that Israel has to compete with countless competitors for secular vacation spots, whereas there is only one Holy Land.
The Israeli marketing campaign seems to be working. Owens - the gray-bearded pastor - shares what he intends to preach to his flock back in Texas: “I would tell every Christian to do their best to get here at least once and see the sights. We’re going to ride into Jerusalem later today and I’m so excited about that."
When it is pointed out that, according to the Scriptures, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a fellow biker, the Rev. Craig Louris, chimed in, “If he came back today maybe he would choose a Harley over a donkey. That was the mode of transportation then; now we've got a little better transportation.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.