This summer Jesus Christ has risen higher than ever before on the agendas of four Arab villages in the Galilee, after the council heads of Fassuta, Mi'ilya, Jesh and Ilabun recently decided to launch a new initiative aimed at attracting Christian pilgrims.
Despite their relative proximity to Nazareth, where Jesus spent most of his life, the four villages are not directly adjacent to the city, nor are they situated nearby any religious site.
This geographical disadvantage prompted the local leaders to band together and cooperate with the Tourism Ministry and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee, who are promoting the new plan to include peripheral towns in the horn of plenty the Christian tourists represent.
"We will interest the tourists in the region's Christian character, which is part of regional history but also characterizes the present. We have to highlight the local traditions in the villages of the area," says Yishay Sorek, director of the regional development division of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee.
Currently, Nazareth attracts virtually all Christian tourists who visit the region, as well as tourists from other parts of Israel. The predominately Christian villages surrounding the city, however, appeal to only a handful of pilgrims.
As a quick tour of the four villages revealed last week, it will take a lot of time and effort until they will be swamped with tourists. They do, however, posses a great deal of potential.
Fassuta, for example, which is situated just south of the border with Lebanon on the north-western slopes of Mount Meron, just celebrated the 100th anniversary of its local church, named after the Christian saint Mar Elias. Decorating the central town square is a large statue of Mar Elias, and Vatican City flags adorn the church itself.
"The village elders believe Elias is our guardian, protecting us from harm. In the war last year, most Katyusha missiles landed nearby the village, and the ones that hit the village itself did not cause any injuries," a local resident explained.
Preparations for Fassuta's re-branding as a Christian tourist destination are already underway. The people of Fassuta, along with the tourism experts and the residents of the other three villages involved in the project, will have to come up with a way to bring out the special and unique features of each destination.
"Turkey named a mountain route after St. Paul to attract Christian tourists. If Turkey can do that and it works, then we can certainly find a way to brand Christian sites in the Galilee," Sorek says.
Sorek is referring to the fact that St. Paul the Apostle, one of the most notable early Christian missionaries, has a very strong link with another partner-village, Jesh, on the north-eastern slopes of Mount Meron. Paul's parents are said to have lived there. As for Mi'ilya, 20 kilometers north-east of Acre, it boasts the Frankish fortress of Castellum Regis, "the king's castle."
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