ST. GEORGE’S MONASTERY, West Bank — Gathered in the chapel of this outpost in the Judean Desert last week, the Orthodox priests chanted “Lord, have mercy” in Greek, in a service of blessing for a new road that makes the venerable building accessible to the growing number of tourists willing to dare a visit to the troubled Holy Land.
As far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, the priests may as well have been speaking, well, Greek. Because the road was built by Israel over land the Palestinians consider their own, officials in Ramallah condemned the priests’ participation in the road’s inauguration ceremony.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “expressed surprise” that the Orthodox priests joined the director-general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry Tuesday at the monastery, which clings to a cliff side over Wadi Qelt, a deep canyon running down to the Jordan Valley. Another Palestinian minister said the monks’ presence “gave a deceiving impression” about the status of the land around St. George’s.
Like other stretches on the rocky road that still clings to the misnomer “peace process,” the Palestinian protest will fade like a mirage in the desert surrounding St. George’s. More important in the end is the (literally) concrete path laid out for pilgrims to visit one of the most important and most beguilingly beautiful sacred sites in the Holy Land.
Archbishop Aristarchos, the secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem and the leader of the brief prayer service, was diplomatic in his comments, when asked about Palestinian complaints over the road.
“This is a monastery of prayer for peace in our region, for peace in the Holy Land,” Aristarchos said. “The road brings full access for pilgrims who are messengers of peace to the Holy Land.”
The $500,000 road cuts over from the main Jerusalem-Jericho highway in front of the entrance to an Israeli settlement. It snakes around dusty dunes and dry wadis. To the east, the view is hazy down over the Jordan Valley to the mountains rising in the Hashemite Kingdom. After a 10-minute drive, visitors arrive at a parking lot.
The ride used to take over an hour in a four-by-four vehicle or considerably longer for hikers.
Tourism in Israel is at record levels, according to the Tourism Ministry, mainly fueled by pilgrimages.
Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.