In the past year hundreds of Israeli Christians have made pilgrimages to holy sites in Lebanon, even though the country is classified an enemy state. Groups of all ages, sometimes up to 50 people, spend a week in Lebanon on trips organized by the Galilee’s Christian clergymen, mostly under the radar.
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“These are not underground trips or infiltration, but a very orderly process,” says one organizer. “But due to the sensitivity, we try to keep a low profile. It’s a purely religious visit, a pilgrimage. Just as Muslims go to Mecca and Medina, we go to the holy Christian sites in Lebanon.”
When Pope Francis visited Israel in May 2014, he was accompanied by Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch, Moran Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.
Brushing aside expected criticism, Rahi visited Christian communities in Israel, toured Haifa and Jaffa, and went as far as the ruins of the village of Bir’im in the Upper Galilee. He also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and proposed a plan to help Israeli Christians visit Lebanon’s pilgrimage sites. Churches in Israel and Lebanon started working on the project.
Israeli Arabs rarely visit Lebanon, although a number of artists and writers who were invited by cultural institutions or to take part in a song contest have done so, with a Palestinian passport issued for the trip. The last visitor was actor Mohammad Bakri, who took part in a series of performances in Beirut.
In 2010 a group of Druze clergy came to visit the community’s holy sites in Lebanon. The Israeli authorities largely turned a blind eye and did not take steps against the visitors, or sufficed with brief questioning at the crossing into Jordan, from which they proceeded to Lebanon.
A Galilee village resident told Haaretz that the pilgrimage from Israel to Lebanon, via Jordan, is organized to the smallest detail and leaves participants little time for themselves – save for two or three hours at a Beirut shopping center.
“First you have to register through the church. The names are passed on to the company that organizes the trips for the Maronite church, and are given to the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which issues passports,” she says.
The group, accompanied by clergymen, leaves for Jordan via the Jordan River Crossing, where the travelers’ Israeli passports are stamped. The group stays in Amman for two days,during which the Jordanian authorities stamp the members’ Palestinian passports, with which they fly from Amman’s international airport to Beirut, and submit them to border control at Beirut’s airport.
A Palestinian official told Haaretz the pilgrims’ Palestinian passport is a kind of temporary transit pass, valid for one specific visit. It’s returned on the way from Beirut to Amman.
The first stop is Harissa, a mountainous area 26 kilometers northeast of Beirut, overlooking the capital. It consists of several famous holy sites such as a 15-ton bronze statue, 8.5 meters high, of Mary in the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. The visit’s highlight is the mountain village of Aannaya, which hosts the Saint Maroun-Aannaya monastery and the Catholic shrine of Saint Charbel (1828-1898), a canonized, 19th-century Lebanese monk. Pilgrims from all over the world and all the communities make pilgrimages to the site, believing that miracles occur there.
The pilgrims also visit Beirut and the township Magdusa, southeast of Sidon and Zahla, and several sites in the Beqaa Valley, including the historic city Baalbek and Mount Lebanon. “It’s an extremely packed, spiritual visit. Those who go there don’t think of politics, they only take it all in and pray and enjoy the breathtaking scenery,” one participants says.
Another Israeli who took part in the pilgrimage last month said the group members receive the trip plan in advance and are given clear instructions. They are forbidden to visit any site without the organizers’ knowledge.
“For me it was a dream come true,” she says. “We in the Galilee are always hearing about miracles that took place in the Charbel monastery, and visiting his burial site and monastery is very exciting. Lebanon in general is an amazing state with wonderful scenery, and when you get such an opportunity, why not take it.”
As she puts it, “Some Muslims go to Saudi Arabia and there are Jews who go to Tunis and Morocco, even though Israel has no diplomatic relations with those countries, so I don’t think our visits are so extraordinary.”
At $1,800 per person, the trip isn’t cheap, but some of those who have taken the trip say that as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the price seems reasonable. It’s also reasonable if one takes into account the stay in Amman and the round trip flight, they say.
One priest who went on the trip says the fact that Maronite church followers comprise the largest, most influential community in Lebanon and that officials such as President Michel Aoun and Patriarch Rai are among them helped remove the obstacles.
The trip is based on a tacit agreement involving Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Israel allows the groups to leave for Jordan, with whom there is a peace agreement, and return from it, with their Israeli passports, without asking what happens during their stay in Amman. Jordan lets them leave for Beirut with their Palestinian passports, while Lebanon receives pilgrims carrying Palestinian passports.
“Clearly there’s an understanding here on all sides. The fact that there have been no hitches and that nobody has been taken in for questioning or arrested by any side – as long as the group members stick to the plan – attests to it,” the priest says.
A woman who traveled to Lebanon a few months ago said that in the crossing from Israel to Jordan there were no delays or questions from the Israeli border control and security officials. In Amman they spent their time in the hotel, or shopping or visiting churches. Everything went smoothly at the Amman airport too, where the pilgrims presented their Palestinian passport with the permit to enter Lebanon in it.
Another traveler who returned recently said that on the way back, at the border crossing in Jordan, they didn’t hide the fact that they had been to Lebanon. “If anyone asked we said we’d been to Lebanon and nothing happened. By the way, the conduct of the Israeli crossing officials gave us to understand that they know everything. Some asked us how it was in Lebanon and we told them. We have nothing to hide. All we did was visit holy sites,” he says.