Perhaps the best-kept secret in Israel’s Christian community is the growing phenomenon of Israeli Arab Christians visiting Lebanon for religious pilgrimages coordinated by the Palestinian Authority.
Israel considers Lebanon — along with Iran, Iraq and Syria — an enemy state and laws forbid citizens to trade with and travel to those countries.
But Christians have found an unorthodox way of making the pilgrimages despite the diplomatic restrictions and possible political implications.
Approximately once a month, a group of a dozen or so Israeli Arab Christians cross the border into Jordan at the King Hussein Border Crossing at Beit She’an using their Israeli passports. From there, the group travels to Amman, where the Palestinian embassy issues the pilgrims a temporary travel document, complete with Jordanian entry stamps.
The pilgrims then board a flight to Beirut with their PA-issued documents. The travel permits are returned to the embassy in Amman on their way back to Israel.
The Catholic Church in Israel is the organizer of the trips, and has obtained the tacit agreement of Israeli authorities to allow the pilgrimages to take place.
Church leaders insist the pilgrimages are entirely apolitical.
“This is not an underground campaign or an attempt at infiltration,” one Christian leader who helps organize the trips told the Haaretz daily. “We do keep a low profile because of the sensitivities.
“It’s purely a religious visit, a journey of religious pilgrims,” the clergyman said. “Just like Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca, we make pilgrimages to Christian sites in Lebanon.”
These sites include the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in the Beirut-area village of Harissa, the Monastery of St. Maron. and the Catholic shrine to St. Charbel in the northern village of Annaya.
The organizers are aware of the sensitivity of the visits. Israel and Lebanon remain in a formal state of war, and both sides remember the 34-day war between Israel and tje Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah in 2006.
“We tell the participants to blend in; if they don’t speak a [pure] Arabic [without Hebrew idioms], we tell them it’s better for them to just be quiet,” a Maronite priest told Israel Radio on Thursday. “We go there to pray, and then we go home.”
The pilgrimages are new, growing out of Pope Francis’s visit to Israel in 2014. In a controversial step at the time, the head of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination visited Israel to accompany Francis, becoming the first-ever Lebanese religious leader to come to the Jewish state since its creation in 1948.
Cardinal Bechara Ra’i, a Maronite Catholic, was heavily criticized at home for making the trip. During his visit, Ra’i met with Vatican and PA officials to discuss launching the pilgrimages.
The phenomenon of Israeli Arabs visiting Muslim countries is not a new one. Every year, thousands of Israeli Muslims make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca via Jordan.
Though a limited number of pilgrims are permitted to fly to Mecca from Ben Gurion Airport during Ramadan via Amman, most make the 1,350-kilometer (850-mile) trip by bus across the Jordanian and Saudi deserts.
Last year, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was reportedly working to persuade Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights from Tel Aviv for Israeli Muslims to make the pilgrimage.