Douglas Todd: Israel-Hamas war scaring pilgrims away from Holy Land

Opinion: The Israel-Hamas war is reducing pilgrimages to the Middle East, but any ‘earthly journey with a spiritual purpose’ can offer insights into our own lives

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In June, Presbyterian Rev. Ross Lockhart of Vancouver led 35 Canadians on a pilgrimage to Egypt and Israel.

“It was a few months before all hell broke loose,” he says.

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This year, as a result of heightened fears following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war after the Hamas terrorist attacks of Oct. 7, far fewer spiritual pilgrimage tours are heading for Israel and Palestine.

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Normally, Christian organizations support a tremendous number of tours to the Holy Land, taking about 700,000 individuals a year. They’re especially common at Easter, to mark the Crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, in Jerusalem.

Lockhart, dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian Church in Canada college at the University of B.C., has led seven pilgrimages to Israel, the West Bank and other biblically important regions of the Middle East, such as Egypt and Jordan.

He’s also led three to Turkey, Greece and Italy, to follow the path of Jesus’s apostle, Paul. That’s not to mention the pilgrimages Lockhart has directed to Northern Ireland, his ancestral homeland, to follow in the footsteps of the fifth-century missionary St. Patrick.

He’s quite aware pilgrimages are not above criticism, often dismissed as a form of “religious tourism.” Centuries ago, even Protestant reformers attacked Christians who went to the Holy Land to venerate bones and relics, to say things like, “‘Look, here’s the rock that Jesus touched.’”

But to most participants pilgrimages are “overwhelmingly positive,” Lockhart says, a geographical, emotional and spiritual journey. They often lead to personal revelations.

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“A lot of self-reflection takes place” among participants in Lockhart’s two-week pilgrimages, which include daily community prayer, worship at biblical historic sites and exposure to “current historical and political issues that cannot be escaped.”

Since Lockhart’s Christian pilgrimages are not overtly political (though some others are), they don’t explicitly dig into the long, complex conflicts among the Jewish, Muslim and shrinking Arab Christian populations of the Holy Land.

Even though geopolitical realities provide the background of every tour, Lockhart is predisposed to not air his views on the continuing conflict. People of the Middle East, he says, have good reason to be suspicious of outsiders parachuting in and offering simplistic answers to complex historical, political and religious relationships.

“It’s such a fraught situation, with such sorrow and sadness on both sides.”

In addition to connecting with Palestinian Christian partners, Lockhart says his tours feature frequent interactions with Jews and Muslims.

“Obviously, it’s heartbreaking what’s happening now. Some of the world’s most sophisticated diplomats and world leaders are struggling to bring about a solution. We’re called to pray for peace and to hold out the possibilities of reconciliation, as difficult as it appears to be.”

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Although Lockhart’s tours emphasize developing the inner life with insights linked to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, he’s pleased to see pilgrimages are becoming widely popular, including for people who don’t identify with any particular tradition or philosophical world view.

Hundreds of thousands of people a year, for instance, are going on private Camino de Santiago tours in Spain, he says, often to work through a major life transition. “There’s something about the journey aspect that makes a difference.”

He defines pilgrimage broadly — as “an earthly journey with a spiritual purpose.” Pilgrimages can come in many forms, he says, including through time spent in silence at retreat centres or even in one’s own home, reflecting on readings.

“They often come with a sense of longing, and have an expectation of revelation.”

Pilgrimages are “about new birth, new possibility,” says Vancouver Rev. Ross Lockhart, who has led seven pilgrimages to Jerusalem, pictured, and other points of the Middle East. sun

Lockhart’s Middle Eastern pilgrimages stop at many sites named in the Bible, particularly in Jerusalem, where Jesus was put on trial and ultimately crucified.

Some pilgrims expecting to see Golgotha, the hill on which the New Testament says Jesus was tortured and died on the day now known in the West as Good Friday, are taken aback when they get to Jerusalem, Lockhart says. They discover the site is now dominated by the ornate Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is operated by many different denominations.

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“It’s always super-crowded and has a frantic feel,” he says, while acknowledging the giant sanctuary’s atmosphere might echo the chaotic scenes surrounding the trial and death of Jesus.

Near the end of his pilgrimages Lockhart prefers visiting the nearby Garden Tomb, which is outdoors and much more peaceful. While it may not actually be the place where the body of Jesus was buried, “It offers a time to reflect on the whole journey we’ve taken. It’s a time to pause and think about what’s changed in my own life.”

He also greatly values visiting sites along the road to Emmaus, west of Jerusalem, because it continues the theme of discovery. It’s where, after Jesus’ death, two of his followers had a mystical experience of the resurrected Christ. But they don’t recognize him.

“For me it’s a fitting end to a pilgrimage. It asks, ‘Where has God met us in our ordinary lives, unknown and unrecognized, in ways yet to be disclosed?’ The road to Emmaus to me is a wonderful Easter story, because it’s not just about an event, it’s about a journey. It’s about new birth, new possibility. I find that to be incredibly powerful.”

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