An abundance of South Florida churchgoers are journeying to Israel, spurred by a calm security climate and a push by pastors who want their flocks to connect with the land of Jesus.
These travelers are helping to boost Israeli tourism this year to a potential all-time high. May marked the sixth consecutive record-breaking tourism month, with 309,000 visitors, a 33 percent increase over May 2009, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.
South Florida churches are joining these pilgrims or will join them in the coming months. Calvary Chapel, based in Fort Lauderdale, led 300 congregants on a 10-day trip in May. Two Diocese of Palm Beach churches - St. Peter and Our Lady Queen of the Apostles -just completed a tour. St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in Boca Raton plans to visit in January and Grace Community Church in Boca Raton will follow in 2011.
"Christian tourism is absolutely on fire here," said Elisa Moed, chief executive officer of Travelujah, an Israel-based tour company that caters to Christians. "2010 should be a record."
About two-thirds of tourists to Israel are Christian, with most of the remainder Jewish. Most of the sites Christians seek to visit - such as Nazareth, the Mount of Olives and Megiddo - are in heavily traveled areas where security is not an issue, Moed said. The Israeli government is attempting to ease access to sites of Christian interest in the occupied West Bank, such as allowing tour guides to lead visits to Bethlehem, an initiative that began last month.
"I felt extremely safe," said Kristy Rogan, 52, of Plantation, who traveled with her four children on the Calvary Chapel trip. "I've told so many people they should go."
The most recent incident of violence was the Gaza flotilla conflict off Israel's coast on May 31. Israeli commandos raided a ship carrying supplies to Gaza and killed nine people. The incident ended a lull in violence since the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2007-2008, when Israel responded to Palestinian rocket attacks with bombs and airstrikes and ultimately sealed the Gaza border.
Calvary's Rev. Greg Anderson said the church's trip helped him better understand not only the political and social situation of the country today, but what life was like in the time of Jesus. He said he especially relished visits to the Garden Tomb, the site of Jesus' burial, and Caesarea Phillipi, where Jesus spoke to the disciple Peter about the future church.
"I saw the historical evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Anderson said. "I got confirmation that my faith is based on facts."