Israel's tourist industry is on the up again following the downturn from the second intifada, with around 3 million visitors coming this year, the highest ever..
Few people have been boarding planes with a copy of the Koran in their hand luggage, hoping to fulfill the dream of praying at Jerusalem's al-Aksa Mosque.
But among those few were the 20-plus Muslims who recently traveled to the Holy Land for a busy one-week pilgrimage, organized by the East London chapter of the Three Faiths Forum - a UK-based initiative that encourages friendship and dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Thus is the visit reported in the Jerusalem Post http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1227702414996&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
Despite some doubts about safety, however, Muslims were keen to sign up for the tour of the Three Faiths Forum http://www.threefaithsforum.org.uk/History.htm , and many are already planning on making a return trip.
"Compared to what you see on television, coming here and seeing the reality is completely different," said one participant. "On the television, it's just bad news and sensationalism. You have to come to see for yourself in order to understand."
The tour attracted an unusually high number of Muslims, who jumped at the opportunity to make their first visit to the Holy Land. Destinations on the hectic itinerary included the Judean Desert and Masada; Christian sites in the Galilee such as Nazareth and the ancient synagogue of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), where Jesus began his ministry; and the 18th-century Jazzar Pasha Mosque in Acre.
One Muslim who works in the British Health Service, says she was particularly impressed by the Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, which serves a mix of Arab and Jewish patients. "The dedication of the staff at the hospital was wonderful," she says. "They have some technology that we don't even have in England, like monitoring units for babies and mothers in labor. Israel should be proud."
The pilgrims made the ascent to the Temple Mount, to pray at al-Aksa no fewer than four times. But visiting Islamic holy places was no less important than learning about Jewish and Christian sites in the country, making the group probably the only Muslims in Jerusalem to mingle with Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall after finishing Friday prayers at the al-Aksa Mosque.
Following their return to London, many of the participants said they wanted to come back to Israel. "I am going to arrange a trip with a larger group”, said one enthusiastically.
"Israel was a big eye-opener for me," said another pilgrim "I always wanted to come - not just from a religious point of view, but also because I wanted to see the other side of the coin. The media can be good and bad. Some people have the perspective that Jews are the enemies of Muslims, but you mustn't tar everyone with the same brush."