- Christian pilgrimage (two million in 2011) is the foremost point of contact with Israel for non-Jews from around the world, representing almost 60% of the state’s tourism
- Christian beliefs are inextricably rooted in Judaism and the Old Testament.
- Religious sites banned to Jews and Christians before the Six-Day War are now protected by Israel and open to people of all faiths
- Christian Israelis have equal rights with all other Israeli citizens
- Israel is home to the only Christian population that has not declined significantly in the last 50 years.
Of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, nearly two million visited Israel in 2011. Christian pilgrimage is the foremost point of contact with Israel for non-Jews from around the world. Representing almost 60% of the state’s tourism, these trips not only strengthen Israel’s economy but also develop personal connections between the Jewish state and millions of non-Jews in North America, Europe and, increasingly, Asia. What begins as a vacation or spiritual pilgrimage for many Christians develops into a lifelong friendship with Israel and the Jewish community – and even advocacy on behalf of the Jewish state. What explains the Christian world’s interest in Israel?
For practicing Christians, including Protestants, Catholics, and other denominations, one’s theological beliefs are inextricably rooted in history and beliefs of ancient Judaism. The Old Testament is an indispensable part of the Christian Bible. Its 39 books (note that the Catholic and Orthodox faiths include additional selections) are all translations of the Hebrew Bible, known to Jews as Tanakh (a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets, and Writings). The stories that have inspired Jews for generations – beginning with creation in Genesis and continuing through the Exodus out of Egypt and beyond – are a source of inspiration to Christians today. The moral instructions contained in the Hebrew Bible (including the Ten Commandments) are essential pillars of faith for practicing Christians. Christians also believe the Hebrew Bible contains prophecies foretelling the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus (a belief not shared by Jews).
Whether one is Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, one cannot be a faithful Christian without believing in the Hebrew Bible and the spiritual journey taken by the ancient Israelites. The context in which Christianity was born – as recounted in the Christian Bible’s New Testament – is that of ancient Israel and early rabbinic Judaism, and it is in this period that many of authoritative debates on Jewish practice took place between leading rabbis, later compiled as the Talmud. While the New Testament is a Christian scripture (not shared by Jews), it focuses on the teachings and martyrdom of Jesus – a first-century Jew born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. In the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus is described as travelling through modern-day Israel performing miracles and offering moral instruction to Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel. The Gospels are replete with references to Jesus’ Jewish character: the Last Supper held by Jesus and the disciples was a Passover Seder – the ritual meal and retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, celebrated by Jews around the world to this day. In the following decades the apostle Paul (himself Jewish) and Jesus’ disciples (most of whom were Jewish) began the process of spreading early Christianity throughout the Mediterranean.
In addition to the Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism today, at which Christian tourists regularly pray) many Christians include a visit to various New Testament holy sites including
- The Church of the Nativity (site of Jesus’ birth);
- The Jordan River (site of Jesus’ baptism);
- The Sea of Galilee (site of Jesus’ walk on water);
- Capernaum (site of several miracles, as well as the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew);
- The Church of the Beatitudes (site of the Sermon on the Mount – located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee);
- The Garden of Gethsemane (site of Jesus’ arrest);
- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb (depending on one’s tradition, both considered the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection); and
- The Mount of Olives (site of Jesus’ ascent).
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, neighbouring Arab states declared war on the Jewish state and Jerusalem became a central battleground. When a ceasefire was declared in 1949, Jordan was in total control of the present-day West Bank (which includes Bethlehem) and the eastern part of Jerusalem including the Western Wall, the Old City, and various Christian holy sites – such as Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River baptismal site and the two crucifixion / resurrection sites.
Under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, the Western Wall was blocked to all Jews and Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives were desecrated, some used by Jordanian troops in the construction of latrines. In the same period, the Jordanian government severely restricted the local Christian community from key sites such as the Old City of Jerusalem and to Bethlehem.
In 1967, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria prepared to invade Israel in what the President of Egypt declared would be a war of “extermination.” In response to Egypt’s expulsion of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai and blockade of the Red Sea, the Six-Day War began – and ended – resulting in Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, Gaza, the Sinai, and the West Bank. Jerusalem was reunified under Israeli sovereignty. On the day Israeli forces liberated the Old City, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan established freedom of religion in all of Jerusalem, announcing:
To our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.
Since then, Israel has upheld this pledge to people of all faiths – who enjoy safe and open access to Jerusalem’s holy sites. Likewise, under Israel’s oversight, Christians have enjoyed access to important sites in the West Bank. In Bethlehem, Palestinian security forces manage local policing duties and access to the Church of the Nativity. In the Jordan River valley, the baptismal site is protected by Israeli security forces, both arrangements based on agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (through the Oslo Accords and subsequent treaties) and in place pending a comprehensive peace agreement.
Today, some 120,000 Christians live in Israel, mostly in Haifa, Nazareth, and towns in the Galilee. Israeli Christians enjoy full freedom of religion, and research indicates that Israel is the only country in the region in which the Christian population has not experienced significant decline in the past 50 years. Israeli Christians are integrated into the mainstream of Israeli life, serving on the Supreme Court, in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament), public service and military.
In addition to studying in Israel’s world-class universities, Israeli Christians have a reputation for high educational achievement in general. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics noted in 2012:
Christian Arabs have had the highest rates of success in the matriculation examinations, both in comparison to the Muslims and the Druze and in comparison to all students in the Jewish education system. In the 2010 school year, 63% of the Christian 12th grade students earned a matriculation certificate compared with 46% of the Muslims, 55% of the Druze and 58% of the students in the Jewish education system.
In March of 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summarized Israel’s commitment to the full protection of a prosperous and free Christian community in the Jewish state:
Israel’s Christian population will always be free to practice their faith. This is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are fully free to practice their faith. They don’t have to fear; they don’t have to flee. In a time where Christians are under siege in so many places, in so many lands in the Middle East, I’m proud that in Israel Christians are free to practice their faith and that there’s a thriving Christian community in Israel.