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2015: “a terrible year” for pilgrimages to the land of Jesus

In 2015 only 275,118 pilgrims have booked religious services in the shrines. The groups were 8,254. The “Summary report on the number of Catholic pilgrims in the Holy Land” compiled by the Franciscan Pilgrim Office (FPO), the Office of the Holy Land Custody in charge of regulating Eucharistic celebrations and prayers in the holy sites run by the Custody, contains dismal figures. A “visible, progressive decline”, that marks 2015 as a “remarkably mediocre year”. Among the causes: the fear of the Islamic State, wars in the area (Iraq and Syria) coupled by insecurity caused by violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The total number of pilgrims who in 2015 have booked religious services in the shrines amounts to 275,118. The groups were 8,254. The numbers highlight a “visible, progressive” decline, marking 2015 as a “remarkably mediocre” year in terms of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The figures are contained in the “Summary report on the number of Catholic pilgrims in the Holy Land” compiled by the Franciscan Pilgrim Office (FPO) the Office of the Holy Land Custody in charge of regulating Eucharistic celebrations and prayers in the holy sites, 16 of which are run by the Custody. These are reliable numbers since as of October 2014 a digital booking system enables the online booking of liturgical services in the various shrines. However, the statistics don’t include “visitors and groups of pilgrims who, although they did not have a booking, succeeded nevertheless to celebrate in the shrines of the Custody”. FBO made known that for the same reasons, “we cannot take as an absolute reference the statistics provided by the Ministry of Tourism regarding the entry of tourists. The Ministry, in fact, for obvious reasons, cannot distinguish the diverse objectives of the visitors to the Country, if not only in a summary way (Israeli tourists, groups of students, and others)”. The only shrine which, at this present moment, is in a condition of calculating, besides pilgrims who celebrate, also the visitors who frequented it, is Capernaum, which in 2015 received a total of 481,781 visitors. In 2014 (which was not a positive year, because of the crisis in Gaza during the summer) there were 674,327 visitors. That’s why, according to FPO, “the numbers presented constitute an interesting indication, but they do not designate the real number of visitors and pilgrims, which should be therefore abundantly increased.

For Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Ofm Custos of the Holy Land, approximately 500,000 pilgrims visited the Holy Land in 2015, “a dramatic decline compared to previous years”.

Decreasing numbers of pilgrims. Taking Capernaum as a benchmark, 2015 registered a decrease of 28,5% when compared to the previous year. The calmest month is traditionally January, which has only registered 11,117 pax. June, July and August, which are traditionally very crowded, have been particularly low in numbers, with a total of 43.623 pax. After various appeals was registered a good increase (October was the best month with 40,639 pax), followed by a decrease in November and again a sharp drop in December (18.130). October was a good month “because pilgrims had already paid for their pilgrimage, even though the problems in the Holy Land had already started”.

The pilgrims’ countries of departure. The pilgrims coming from the western world (North America and Europe), which in the past constituted the near totality of numbers, nowadays constitute not more than half of the number of pilgrims. Asia and Latin America are ever more present, while very few pilgrims arrive from Africa and Oceania.

China is an exception with 3.396 pilgrims, representing a 100% increase.

In 2015 US pilgrims amounted to 50,135, followed by Poles (29,882) and Italians (27,508). Increasing numbers of pilgrims come from Indonesia (19,786) Brazil (18,106) and India 13.638, that exceed those from France. The latter are no more than 13,445, slightly less than Spaniards (13,803 pilgrims). In this hypothetical ranking of attendance, Madagascar (9 pilgrims) and Venezuela with five, rank last.

Denominations. The great majority of pilgrims who book services are Catholic. In 2015 216,639 (for 6,605 groups) booked religious services at FPO, 215.346 of whom were Catholics of Latin rite (for 6575 groups). An increase was registered in celebrations of Protestant and Reformed churches, and of different Evangelical congregations: 25.831 were Protestant, 21.360 Evangelical, 3.626 Anglican, 1.813 Mormon, 786 Lutheran, 664 Baptist. Non-Catholic pilgrims usually celebrate in those shrines with specific infrastructure (open-air altars, inter-religious places for prayer, etc.), often these places are Tabgha, Gethsemane and the Shepherds Field near Bethlehem.

Most-frequently visited shrines. The FPO Report shows that the shrines which are most visited are the Holy Sepulchre (128,453 pax have celebrated), Gethsemane (125,697), and Bethlehem (151,626 in total comprising the Basilica, the Milk Grotto and Shepherds Field). Nazareth was inserted in the system only on 1 November. The number of celebrations in Nazareth is always rather limited, because of the lack of infrastructures. Other shrines that registered high numbers of pilgrims’ visits are Mount Tabor (61,779), Cana (73,790) and the Cenacolino (38,549). There has been a constant increase in pilgrims desiring to make different experiences, such as the “Green-Pilgrims”, that is, those who make pilgrimages on foot across the Country. There is also an increase in the numbers of pilgrims who are returning and desiring to visit other Places or to make more prolonged experiences in the shrines, as well as in the requests for infrastructures that offer simple and sober forms of reception.

 

Future prospects. For the FPO, the data collected in the Report indicate that during the coming years we shall see a greater change in the modality of pilgrimages. The cultural and geographical origins of the pilgrims are changing, and the groups’ requests are ever more diversified.

Many are not satisfied with just celebrating Mass. Pilgrims request and expect to find many other types of services, in particolar, areas of silence, and areas for the celebrations of non-Catholics. Groups of young people, (especially during the summer), as well as other groups of pilgrims, are requesting sober and simple forms of hospitality (also for economic reasons), which guest houses and hotels cannot always provide.

In order to develop dedicated strategies to encourage the inflow of pilgrims, on December 21 the Custos Pizzabballa held a meeting at Israel’s Minister of Tourism. “First of all we need to work in conjunction with those South-American and Asian Countries that are increasing the inflow of pilgrimages” the Custos said. He pointed out that prices of flights to Israel, still very high, should be reduced, coupled by affordable packages and articulated proposals”.

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