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Christmas in the Holy Land: Pilgrims and the Virgin Mary

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 During the December holidays, many Christian pilgrims and visitors come to Israel to walk the path of the Christmas story and follow Jesus Christ’s footsteps from Jerusalem to the Galilee, just as Christ did in the Gospels.

Many pilgrims stop at the The Church of the Visitation in Ein Karim, just outside of Jerusalem, which honors a visit paid by the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-56). Elizabeth became pregnant by a miracle not too soon before the Virgin Mary also became pregnant by a miracle. The two mothers-to-be met at the church in Ein Karim, where according to tradition, Mary recited her song of praise, the Magnificent, one of the most ancient hymns to Mary sang today.

Franciscan priest Father Gabriel Hensel said visiting the church in Ein Karim is a highlight for Christian pilgrims.

“Not only the Gospel, but here the land speaks to us, the stories speak to us. I have felt this in many places in the Holy Land. When I first came to this church I realized that this is where the Magnificent first spoke. It strikes you inside,” Father Hensel said.

Even with the deep religious meaning of such Christian pilgrimages, numbers remain low this season. This Christmas, 750,000 Christian tourists are expected to make their way to Israel.

Christians represented more than half (53 percent) of all incoming tourists to Israel in 2014 according to the Ministry of Tourism, but due to Operation Protective Edge, incoming tourism was significantly affected and 2014 is expected to end with a 1% decrease in Christian tourists and 7% fewer visitors than 2013.

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