Vatican and Israel jointly seek pilgrims for Year 2000

JERUSALEM — One year after the Vatican and Israel established diplomatic relations, they are campaigning to bring turn-of-the-century pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem.

An unprecedented increase of tourists in both cities is expected for the millennium, and it is being encouraged by none other than Pope John Paul II himself.

In fact, one of the pope's most cherished projects for the Grand Jubilee, Year 2000, is to hold a summit of representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths at Mount Sinai. While skeptics frown at potential conflicts, a kind of trial run of this potentially formidable event was scheduled in Jerusalem last month.

The Rome-based St. Egidio Community, an international Catholic movement supported by the pope, organized the event.

In response to official invitations from Economics Minister Yossi Beilin and the top Palestine Liberation Organization official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, St. Egidio was scheduled to hold a three-day meeting of "The Children of Abraham, United in Jerusalem" in "neutral" spaces such as a theater in the Armenian quarter and a Jerusalem hotel.

An essential aspect of Vatican preparations for the Jubilee Year in Rome and Jerusalem is sensitivity to Jewish and interreligious concerns.

Vatican officials have received directives to conduct informal consultations with Jewish experts regarding both the form and content of celebrations in Rome, while in Jerusalem a clause in the Israel-Vatican diplomatic pact created a bilateral panel of pilgrimage experts to coordinate preparations.

The pope has said the Jubilee should stress "the relationship with our Jewish brothers whose presence in Rome is more ancient than that of Christians, so that celebrations in Rome adequately correspond to those in the Holy Land."

With an eye toward encouraging pilgrimages, a photo exhibition on "Jerusalem from the Air" was jointly organized by Israel's Embassy to the Holy See and the Vatican's official tourist agency, Opera Romana Pallegrinaggi. The exhibit of 25 aerial views, created by former IAF pilots Duby Tal and Moni Haramati, is currently on view at ORP's office.

The pope also granted permission to hoist a large advertising banner above the ORP office. "When the pope leans out of his window, he can see the sign of our exhibition on Jerusalem beckoning to him," says Boaz Modai, first counselor of Israel's Embassy to the Holy See.

All of the tourism preparations focus on culture — and by tacit agreement avoid politics.

However, two mild Israeli references to Jerusalem's status slipped into the general context without controversy. The Israeli government brochure on Jerusalem distributed at the exhibition stated that "throughout its millenary existence, Jerusalem has never been the capital of any other sovereign state."

At the well-attended exhibit opening, Ambassador Shmuel Hadas recalled that next year "we will celebrate in Jerusalem the third millennium from when King David declared the city the capital of the people of Israel."

Hadas added, "I assure you that Jerusalem is waiting with open arms for the pilgrims and Catholic believers who will come to commemorate the Jubilee in the year 2000."

ORP statistical experts estimate that 25-30 million pilgrims will be descending on Rome in 2000 — most of them coming from or moving on to Jerusalem.

Tourism peaks will also be reached in the years before and after 2000. Calculating 100,000 daily visitors for every 10 million annually, this means 300,000 tourists per day.

"The Jerusalem 3000 celebrations will be an important proving ground for us," ORP managing director Antonello Rosali says.

ORP's director-general easily admits to nurturing a lifelong love affair with Israel. He was in Palestine on Independence Day, May 14, 1948, while working on an Italian cargo ship transporting eggs, milk, construction material and prime necessities to Palestine from Cyprus.

"I would have liked to have been a sabra [native Israeli Jew] in those days," Rosali says wistfully. "Those young people who were privileged to participate in the birth of their nation were extremely fortunate. It imprints one's life, and if I hadn't been an only son, who knows, I might have stayed on."