If you're an ACCESS Ministries school chaplain, don't bother looking for your CEO or Bishop, come September. They won't be there. Or, if you're a Ridley theological student wanting a lecturer's advice in November, you'll be out of luck. For the Bishop, the lecturer and the CEO, will be on a "comprehensive sightseeing tour." They will be sitting in an "air-conditioned private coach," with all "porterage" covered, seeing "the Bible come alive" in Israel.
It works something like this: A smart travel agency identifies a couple of leaders, with good access to a potential market. They create an itinerary and offer the 'chosen ones' assistance with their costs, if they agree to promote and "lead" the tour. No organization does it better than the agencies promoting the Holy Land, and "walking where Jesus walked" vacations.
ACCESS for example, is a travel agency's dream come true. The Chair, a high profile Bishop, the CEO, and the 12 church Board members, have access to some 67 Local Government area chaplaincy committees. They also have the support of 3,400 volunteers and 212 chaplains operating in some 1000 Victorian state schools, as well as clergy mailing lists supplied by the Board members.
Off they go to Masada, a place "loaded with symbolism". Then Bethlehem, "perched on a hill," with lunch at the "elegant American Colony Hotel." They will visit Yad Vashem and the Israeli Museum, a boutique winery as well as a drive through Nazareth.
However, I believe that such holidays lack integrity and border on being dishonest and deceptive.
ACCESS's Mission Statement asserts that "it serves people authentically without discrimination." It cares "for the educational and personal well being of all people," and prides itself on its partnership with churches. However, it's Holy Land tour is a denial of those very values.
For more than four decades, the Palestinian churches have pleaded with Western churches not to ignore them. They cry for a partnership with visiting church groups. They weep in frustration, anger and profound sadness, as yet another Christian group is waved through Israeli controls without harassment, too busy to stop and listen. They go from the bus to the Church of the Nativity, "then to a prearranged shop where agents get a 40% commission . . .they even tell them which toilet to [use]." And then they're gone.
The Director of the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism, Caesar D'Mello, says, "the majority of pilgrims to the Holy Land go there and return with little reference to the Palestinian people." A well known Christian leader returned from such a tour, confessing he couldn't remember meeting an Arab Christian.
Responding to questions on whether or not it was meeting with Palestinian churches, ACCESS replied, "we appreciate and understand that Christians hold different views as to the merits of travel/tourism/study in the 'Holy Land' and the Middle East, but we provide the service, giving full details in the brochure, so that we do not impinge upon the conscience of any participant."
Australian Christians do support the value of Holy Land holidays, as do Christians in Israel and Palestine. Given the pledge and core values of ACCESS, it's not clear why the "conscience of participants," takes precedence over the wishes of Christians and churches in the Holy Land. Why discriminate against the Palestinians? Why no partnership? The issues of conscience for Australian Christian's who participate in such tours, are twofold: Firstly, do they take seriously the wishes of the Palestinian churches? Secondly, do they wish to further the political and economic oppression of the Palestinian people?
The feelings of the churches in the West Bank and Israel are very clear: "Come and see," is their plea. Our history, they say, "is linked with the early church established in Jerusalem," and their presence, "has never been disconnected with this land." There are some 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank, including Gaza and East Jerusalem. There are another 160,000 in Israel.
Too many people, they say "come to the Holy Land as spectators, touring holy sites. . . not caring or realizing that for the Palestinian Christian, these are living places of worship. Reflecting the pious practices of the Pharisees, they search for a personal blessing, seeking to renew an egocentric, individualistic faith."