DAY ONE – Thursday 22nd August 8am @Manchester Airport
Our Parish pilgrimage began with an early start from St Alban’s Church at 5am. 38 of us are making the journey to Jerusalem today – including parishioners from The Church on Oakwood, St Alban’s, St Hugh’s Borrowash and 10 members of the Chinese Catholic community.
After a trouble free flight our group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv at 5.10pm local time – Israel being 2 hours ahead of the UK. The formalities of passport control and baggage collection were as straightforward as they would be at most European destinations. There was no strong security presence despite the concerns of some back home that this region isn’t an entirely safe place to travel. I didn’t personally see any armed guards here, though I had spotted 2 at Manchester Airport.
Ben Gurion Airport itself is a beautifully designed building, with stone murals and every modern convenience. In fact, looking at the international array of goods on offer, you would be hard pressed to know at first glance that you weren’t still at home. For example, the chocolate selection was full of all the classics – M & Ms, Toblerone, Milky Way, Galaxy – that you would find in any branch of WH Smith.
We were met on arrival by our local tour guide, Samir, who took us to our coach for the journey to Jerusalem. His commentary revealed a knowledgeable man keen to impress upon us the historical resonance and significance that this area has to offer as well as an insight into the political troubles that continue to plague this region which holds so much importance for all 3 of the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is telling that in 1948 when Israel became an independent state, 40% of the population were Christian, today this figure is reduced to just 2%. A sign of flight from the endemic difficulties and agitation it has been impossible for this state to shake off.
Present day Israel’s population is made up of 76% Jews and 22% Muslims. Members of these 2 great religions have found it impossible to peaceably co-exist – the area has had to be divided into 3 ‘Zones,’ Zone A is Palestinian controlled, Zone C is under the control of the Israelis and Zone B remains in a precarious ‘undecided control’ limbo. Complicated and stringently enforced laws control movement between these 3 areas. For example Samir, as an ‘Israeli ID’ holder and with a Jordanian passport, is permitted to visit his sister in Bethlehem, unfortunately his sister is forbidden from entering Jerusalem to visit him. Palestinan and Israeli cars have different identifying numbers and neither are welcome in each others Zones, contravention of this rule could land a driver with a 6month jail term. Samir asks for our prayers for this region, the spiritual capital of the world for millions.
During our coach journey we had the thrill of knowing that we were in the actual area where so many great figures of the Bible lived out their lives – Samson, David, Solomon, the Maccabeans, Goliath and the Philistines, to name a few, trod these paths, looked out over these hills and valleys, fought their wars, loved and lost. Most importantly for Christians, an unassuming little town just up the road, brought forth the saviour of humanity – the Messiah Jesus. Being here gives us the honour of truly walking in the footsteps of The Lord.
For most of us the highlight of today was entering Jerusalem itself, a city that many of us have grown up with in our imaginations but never before experienced ‘in the flesh’. It truly is magnificent – bustling, grand, noisy, vibrant. Our walk from the coach to our accomodation at Ecce Homo Guesthouse took us through a myriad of little alley ways that felt as though they had existed since before Jesus’ time. Tomorrow we have the privilege of exploring this magnificent city on foot…