By Karen Gainor

At HCEF’s 15th International Conference on Saturday, October 19th, 2013, panelists came together to discuss Religious Tourism in the Holy Land, one of the most sacred places on earth, with deep meaning for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  These panelists included Reverend Richard A. Graham, Bishop, Metropolitan Washington DC. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA);  Mr. Sami Abu-Dayyeh, President of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association (HILTOA), CEO of Near East Tourism Agency (NET) and owner of Ambassador and Ritz Hotels in Jerusalem; Father Michael McDonagh, International Advisor to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem; and Mr. Sami Khoury, Tourism Consultant, Visit Palestine Co-founder & General Manager, Alternative Business Solutions.

Mr. Abu-Dayyeh alerted conference participants to the importance of taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage.  He stated how everyone benefits – visitors meet Palestinians face to face, break bread together, get to know one another to dispel myths and misunderstandings, but also because pilgrimages to the Holy Land strengthen income for Palestinians, their businesses and ultimately their families. 

Palestinians do not control the borders, the airports, taxes or visas; life without these is hard and limiting. A sizeable leakage of tourists’ revenue goes directly to Israel.  “This is a big concern!” said Mr. Khoury.  He continued, “Local business owners and others depend upon tourism for their livelihood. It is essential for us to promote overnight stays in Bethlehem and to increase the overall number of pilgrimages to the Holy Land.”

HCEF’s Living Stones Pilgrimages encompass all aspects necessary to support Palestinian Christians by creating jobs for locals and increasing awareness for Americans through first hand experience.  Pilgrims meet, break bread with and spend the night in the homes of the faithful as well as fulfilling spiritual and personal needs.

Father McDonagh shared the importance of the ‘people to people’/ ‘face to face’ factor in changing the status quo through getting to know the Christians of the Holy Land and allowing them to know us.  “If everyone in the Holy Land actively pursues peace, the entire world would be changed.”

Bishop Graham recently visited the Holy Land.  “It’s a beautiful, beautiful place!  As travel has gotten easier tourism has evolved for the better,” he stated.  In support of peace and the Palestinian economy, the Lutheran Church Synod sends youth on ministry for a year through the Young Adults Global Mission. 

In summary, the panelists echoed the same sentiments – encouraging all to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Whether a follower of Judaism, Christianity or Islam – whether fully observant or not – taking a pilgrimage fulfills important and necessary spiritual and personal needs, and promotes the economy of Palestine.

Visit us online at to learn more about HCEF’s Living Stones Pilgrimages and its many other programs.