On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Eye-opening experience

As I boarded an Emirates Airlines plane, an air
stewardess asked me whether it would be safe to travel to Jerusalem. Like my
fellow pilgrims, I told her we would be safe as we have faith in God.

Since last month, with the start of the peace negotiations between the Israelis
and the Palestinians, many have felt encouraged by the lull in fighting.
Religious tours have started again.

Through my church, the Emmanuel Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya, a group of
us applied to the Immigration Department to make the pilgrimage to the Holy

The arrangements were handled by World Discovery Travel Sdn Bhd, a Kuala Lumpur
travel agency which specialises in Christian pilgrimages. The rules are simple
– the travellers must be certified Christians. Approval procedures included
submitting letters from the church to verify membership as well as baptism
certificates. The group must also be accompanied by a pastor or a priest.

The Immigration Department takes about two weeks to vet the applications before
stamping the Malaysian passports to state that permission has been granted for
a single trip to Baitul Maqdis, the Arabic name of Jerusalem.

Malaysians are not allowed to travel to Israel as Malaysia has no diplomatic
ties with the country. But thanks to the understanding, tolerance and
flexibility of the Malaysian Government, restricted trips are allowed to
Jerusalem for religious purposes.

Other Muslim countries, like Indonesia, have similar arrangements which allow
their Christian citizens to perform their religious obligations. The
Indonesians make up the largest number of pilgrims from South-East Asia.

An eight-day trip to Jerusalem and other towns of Christian importance costs
over RM5,000, inclusive of accommodation and food.

Although some might be tempted to make the trip since Israel is out of bounds
to ordinary tourists, the fact is that a visit like this would be meaningless
for them.

It is, after all, a pilgrimage and, as the name suggests, a journey of faith
made up of visits to churches and other religiously significant spots, daily
prayers, hymn singing and religious ceremonies.

Even a Christian who does not know his Bible would find himself overwhelmed
because the names of the characters and places would be lost on him.

Our guides, Muslim driver Ahmad Badawi and Arab Christian guide Jeries Farra,
were superb. They spoke excellent English and in Farra's case, even excellent
Bahasa Indonesia. The Bible-quoting man had taught himself the language as he
handles many Indonesian groups.

The US currency is widely used in Israel. Change given is either in US dollars
or the Israeli shekel, which is slightly less than our ringgit in value. A
visit to the toilet costs a shekel.

For Malaysians visiting Israel, it is indeed an eye-opener. First, many are
able to draw the distinction between a Judaism-practising Jew and a Christian
better. Despite certain similarities, there are vast differences as the Jews do
not accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

The word used by our guide, in modern computer terms, was "deleted" – the ultra
orthodox Jews dismiss Jesus while the secular, modern Jews regard him as
nothing more than an important figure in their history.

Next, the 40 years of unjust occupation by Israel of Palestinian territories
was glaring. Farra was emotional at times when he spoke against the unfair
practices, alerting us to the wall being constructed on the West Bank.

But most frustrating were the checkpoints, manned by Israeli soldiers, outside
towns such as Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth – all important Biblical towns –
under the control of the Palestine Authority.

I saw how many Palestinians, including those with children, were sometimes made
to wait for hours as their documents were checked. Hence, the simple act of
entering their hometowns can become a six-hour ordeal, affecting their
productivity and hampering their movements.

Deprived of funds, real autonomy and economic growth, the Palestinian towns are
dirty and poor.

In contrast, the Israeli-run areas are clean, affluent and, in many places,
reminded me of Los Angeles, with its manicured lawns, rolling hills and palm
tree-lined roads.

Then there are the smartly dressed and blonde haired men and women, as well as
the ultra orthodox Jews with their black hats and jackets.

For the Palestinians, they need the dollars of the pilgrims badly. The people
work in shops that produce religious items and many individuals sell these to
eke out a living.

Our Malaysian tour manager, Inbam Solomon, repeatedly appealed to us to buy from
the Palestinians, saying they needed our help and many of us bought more than
what we wanted to lend support to the Palestinian cause.

And in many of our daily prayers, we prayed that there would be peace forever
in this land – the Israelis and the Palestinians alike need it.