More Pilgrims Going to Holy Land

Custos Says New Problem Is Accommodating Growing Numbers

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ROME, FEB. 24, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Pilgrims are returning to the Holy Land, affirmed the Franciscan Custos of the region, who says he is happy to face the new problem of accommodating the growing numbers.



Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa expressed his contentment about increased pilgrimages to the holy sites at a conference on the situation of the Middle East organized Wednesday by the Community of Sant'Egidio. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches also participated in the conference, which was titled "Christians in the Middle East: Between Future, Tradition and Islam."

The Sant'Egidio event, attended by Andrea Ricardo, the founder of the community, aimed to bring to international attention the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Father Pizzaballa reported good news, "The great novelty of 2007 is this: Last year there has been a grandiose return of pilgrims and the prospects for 2008 are even greater."

Now then, he said, a growth in the number of pilgrims has a corollary: "The problem we have for the future is that the infrastructure is not adequate for an enormous number of pilgrims. It is a positive problem, because it means that at least in this sense, the crisis has ended."

Cardinal Sandri said that pilgrimages to the Holy Land are one of the three ways to help the area and the minority group of Christians that live there, just 1% of the population, a total of 170,000.

He named "prayer, solidarity and the pilgrimages as well, with a presence in these places together with our Christian brothers and sisters."

A voice

Cardinal Sandri's participation in the conference was another step in his campaign to bring aid and attention to Christians in the Middle East.

Last week, the cardinal sent a letter to all the bishops of the world asking them to support the Good Friday collection for the Church in the Holy Land.

He told the Italian bishops' SIR news agency that he hopes to "create a communion of prayer but also motivate pilgrimages to make tangible the closeness of all the Churches in the West."

"We have to work through the press to spread the word about the suffering of Christians in the East and their situation of martyrdom," he added. "I don't speak of persecution; there are laws that protect religious freedom but there are those who fall in the trap of violence."

The Christians, Cardinal Sandri said, "are a minority who find it difficult to live their faith due as well to the conflicts."

"To pray is a way of defending them," he affirmed. "But it is necessary to also create awareness among the authorities of our countries so they act in favor of a stable peace. To make those who work in dialogue and negotiation note that a reciprocity exists. We are open to there being -- like in the West -- openness for our Christians."