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December 25th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

Christian pilgrims flock to Holy Land

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Israel • Judaism

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Nazareth Churches

    Check out this Holy site Of Nazareth!!

    http://nazarethchurches.com/

    February 13, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    December 27, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • tallulah13

      Then you should get off your computer immediately and start praying. Stop wasting time here. You could be changing the world by talking to yourself!

      December 27, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      pray without ceasing in 2012

      December 27, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  3. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    These guys with their Apocolyptic world view have about as much in common with mainstreal Christianity as Rick Perry has with MENSA. I would be willing to bet that both Rick Perry and Rick Santorum would have felt right at home with these guys, though.

    December 27, 2011 at 5:00 am |
  4. PRISM 1234

    You can gather, amusing yourselves with your frivolous, cr'ummy jokes, and make sport out of ridi'culing Christ Jesus, but you'll never do away with Him..
    He is the Lord of all creation, and when countless years pass, He will reign yet still, as King of all creation.
    And it is Him you will face on the end of your road.
    This little baby which came to the world for only one purpose has become a stu'mbling block to many, because of WHO He is!
    Many will weep and mourn for their rejection of Him....
    It is He who will be your JUDGE!
    But to those who acknowledg Him and recieve Him, He is and will be their merci'ful Savior.

    Who then is a wise man, and who is the fo'ol?

    December 26, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Keith

      Well said PRISM.

      December 26, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Ironicus

      Talking to yourself again, I see.

      December 27, 2011 at 5:00 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      Irony,
      You said "Talking to yourself again, I see"

      I wrote it. You read it... so how do you say, I'm talking to myself?.... You wish I did, but ti isn't so... Once I glorified God in a place where people were like lifeless puppets... When I felt awkward doing so, these are the words that were sent to me: "There are more with you then with them! SO, even if there was no one who agreed with the words I say here, there are "more with me then with you", because the hosts of angels and saints in God's Presence, as well as the whole creation, agree with me.

      You are outnumbered... So why would it matter what you say anyway?!

      December 27, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  5. Yabba Dabba Doooooooo

    Okay, the Israeli tourist industry markets Tel Aviv as "a gay-friendly city with a vibrant night life." That would be a different kind of holey land.

    December 26, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  6. JohnR

    "Let's try to hasten the end of the world!" tourism almost makes se-x tourism look okay in comparison. I suppose it's a good thing in principle that people are less afraid to travel to Israel. But we'll see how long that lasts.

    December 26, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  7. Reality

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:

    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror

    -One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    -Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    -Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:

    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    -The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:

    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    -Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    -All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!

    December 26, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • .........

      please hit report abuse on all reality bull sh it

      December 26, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  8. Dianne

    ISRAEL IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL IN TODAY'S WORLD.

    December 26, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • tallulah13

      Evil have several roots. One of the strongest of those roots is people who make false claims in an attempt to create hatred against others.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • TR6

      You mean we are all going to Tbow?

      December 26, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ TR6 ... yep .. we're all going to make millions of dollars quarterbacking professional football teams lol .. oh, you meant that OTHER thing ... sorry, you couldn't pay me enough to do THAT.

      December 26, 2011 at 4:29 am |
    • JohnR

      Blow it out your ear, Dianne! I mean, I COULD point out the absurdity of tying to trace back, eg, the brutality of the Myanmar regime to Israel, but even such obvious points are probably wasted on complete and utter morons like you.

      December 26, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • Keith

      Bzzzzzt. Wrong Dianne.

      December 26, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  9. THE KING IS COMING

    EVERY KNEE WILL BOW AND CONFESS

    December 26, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • Mirosal

      Why should ANYONE do that?

      December 26, 2011 at 2:10 am |
    • Fry

      Why would my knee bow and confess? Why do so many batsh!t insane religious people come out of the woodwork here?

      December 26, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Get Real

      Is a "King" really such hot stuff? Lots of people are wiser and more honorable than kings...

      December 26, 2011 at 2:40 am |
    • tallulah13

      Every elbow will flap like a chicken. Every ear will wiggle. However, only one eyebrow will raise, because it's imitating Spock.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      First of all: What king? Elvis?
      Second: If you're referring to your tyrannical god/jesus (it's hard to decipher which is which), why would it expect us to confess if it is all knowing?
      Keep your foolish little metaphor's to your foolish little one celled brain.
      You people are laughable and in serious need of medication.

      December 26, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • AND THE END IS NEAR ! ! ! AND THERE IS A SALE AT WALMART ! ! !

      I missed the episode where Spock flaps his elbows like a chicken. And I guess I cannot become religious because I just cannot teach my knee to confess.

      Does that mean my knee will burn in the lake of fire?

      The rest of me will happily confess that the original poster is a total whack job.

      December 26, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • JohnR

      I think your knee might end up for all eternity in the wading pool of fire. I think the lake is reserved for full torsos. Not sure about that, however. Gotta double check.

      December 26, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Spock

      I did that in the episode where I got ugly drunk on Antarean absinthe, ran around the Enterprise naked except for a cowboy hat and the Christmas ribbon tied around my Incredible Vulcan Love Python, blasted Star Fleet headquarters with photon torpedoes while I sang Abba's "Waterloo", and woke up with Mr. Sulu next to me with a strange grin on his face. I walked funny for the rest of the episode.

      I thought it was one of oour best episodes, but it rarely gets shown anymore. Censors are such puritans.

      December 26, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Keith

      TP, keep your moronic canadian opinion to yourself.

      December 26, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Keith: When CNN blocks their site to Canadian's, we will keep our opinion to ourselves. How about you act like a real American and treat your neighbors with respect? That's right, you're a christard...respect is not within your vocabulary and you are related to the infamous and deluded CA (captain ass).

      December 27, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  10. Jews rock!

    really the muslims say allah was real and by the by he never came to Israel he rose to heaven in Jordan where the real land of the Palistinians is. It's sad to see other arab countries not wanting to take in their lost brotherin. I've been to Israel and its dangerous because the palistinians in power are corrupt. the us gives money to other countries but the issue is many different people create many different problems.
    Israel is for christians and jews and has been. If you look at history Jesus was just put into Christianity. there was another religion that jesus got its basis from and put infront of it. Israel is an amazing country and has a lot of culture. the issue is the division of israel and the issue already is that israel for the jews have to little space the palistinians should be put into gaza not allowed in Jerusalem or given back to Jordan. there has been archeological finds that show that jews and christians where in the temple mount before the palistinians. the palistinians found those relics and they destroy them to say that others lie. the issue is jews and christians have been around 3,000 years ago 2,000 years ago while muslims started 1,000 years ago. all religions have a place on this earth but the fighting needs to stop. its an important issue and the world needs to unit and stop terrorism.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:56 am |
  11. gera

    Glory to God Jesus Christ, He is Emmanuel.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      nope, you got that wrong...god has never been proven to exist...so it is nothing

      December 26, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • captain america

      A very nice sentiment for a Godly nation. Do not regard liarprevails, it is a canadian and as such has no relevance for US. There's your sign

      December 26, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @captain ass: nothing better to do with your time than to keep up with your delusions? we're still here and when the time comes (not that it ever will) that CNN makes this site for the wanna-be American's (that would be you and your boy toy Keith) we will leave...until then enjoy seeing us and stop wasting your energy on something that is not happening...we will remain and no amount of your hatred is going to make us go away. Try acting a true American moron (you are not a true American).

      December 27, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  12. joey

    flock there, and please stay there, morons

    December 26, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  13. The Central Scrutinizer

    The End Times is an asteroid most likely. Only science can predict when that will happen and that is very difficult to do and most likely won't happen for several generations. It has nothing to do with God, just reality and time.

    Bible prophecies?? Yeah right. Name one that has ever come true. I will read Omar Khayyam.

    I will take the chick on the right if she is at least 21.

    Beaches over blood covered walls.

    December 26, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  14. THE KING IS COMING

    HOLY HOLY HOLY THE ANGELS IN HEAVEN SING REPEATEDLY

    December 26, 2011 at 1:06 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      is Elvis returning

      December 26, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Elvis is dead and I don't feel so good myself.

      Well I ah I ah I ah I am dureaming......of a white........christMAs. Ah just ah like the ones I used to know O O O o OH.....

      December 26, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • tallulah13

      I think that singing noise you hear is just your medication wearing off.

      December 26, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • JohnR

      Hey, don't underestimate the charm of musical hallucinations!

      December 26, 2011 at 5:51 am |
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About this blog

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.