Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Some 2,300 South Korean Christians disregarded warnings from their government not to travel to the Holy Land for security reasons and marched from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Monday to convey a message of peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
The visit, which gave a boost to the Israeli tourism industry now beginning to recover from nearly four years of Palestinian terrorism and violence, came as Israeli officials were responding to a heightened U.S. State Department travel advisory, calling on Americans to defer travel to the region.
Singing such Christian songs as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" in Korean, the throngs of South Korean Christians -- young and old -- walked through the streets of the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo on Monday and crossed over "Checkpoint 300" into the Palestinian area of Bethlehem on what they called the "March for Peace."
Watching the Koreans as they passed the checkpoint, Israeli Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra said he was upset by the re-issuance of the U.S. State Department advisory.
"To tell you the truth? Yes, I was [upset], and I didn't understand exactly the reason -- what happened now," Ezra said. "I understood that Gaza is not allowed to American people. I don't understand why Israel [is]."
The travel warning was upgraded on August 3 after the kidnapping of several foreigners, including an American citizen in the West Bank city of Nablus by gunmen of the Al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigades the previous week. All the hostages were released unharmed within hours.
The warning urged Americans to leave the Gaza Strip and defer travel to Israel and the West Bank, mentioning the kidnapping and terrorist threats against American interests.
Some Americans were alarmed by the warning and understood it to be something new. It was, in effect, the same basic warning that had been in force since last October, when three American security personnel guarding a U.S. diplomatic convoy were killed in a roadside bomb blast in Gaza.
The warning comes at the height of the summer holiday and a little over a month before the start of the Jewish High Holy Day season, when thousands of Jews and Christians from the U.S. and around the world visit Israel.
"I know about very important people in America who are afraid to call people to come to Israel because they are afraid people will blame them [if] something happens," Ezra said. "I would like very much that the State Department cancel this [advisory]."
Ezra said he had spoken with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and was told that the advisory was decided upon based on the advice of experts in the U.S. "We have to convince them," Ezra said. "If you come here, you see how peaceful the area is."
Ezra said the visit from the South Korean Christians was an encouragement and that he hoped the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be "busy all the time."
Jerusalem and Bethlehem border each other. Anyone going to Bethlehem must pass through an Israeli army checkpoint, but most tourists and tour groups are not entering Bethlehem or Palestinian areas these days.
March for peace
Dressed in turquoise and light blue T-shirts -- which organizers said was the color symbolizing peace -- and carrying large banners that had slogans such as "We Bring Peace to Palestine and Israel" and "March for Jesus, March for Peace," the Koreans streamed across the checkpoint unhindered into Bethlehem in large groups as Israeli soldiers stood guard nearby.
Rev. Timothy Ahn, who was part of some 200 Korean Americans in the group, brought 12 other people from his church of 1,000 in New Jersey on the tour and the march.
"We had a concern for security, but we believe that the government of Israel -- the government of Palestine also -- they promised security for our people," Ahn said. "We feel quite safe here, to my surprise."
In addition to the State Department warning, the South Korean government warned its citizens not to travel to Israel and tried to prevent the peace march due to South Korea's involvement in sending troops to Iraq. But the people came anyway.
Hwang Won Joo, spokesman for the organizing committee of the Jerusalem 2004 "March for Peace" sponsored by the Institute of Asian Culture & Development, said the Christians had come from various churches in South Korea to bring a message of peace to the troubled region.
"We are South Korean Christians, and our country has been divided [into] South and North Korea since 1953," said Joo. "We have [the] experience of conflict between South and North Korea, and that's why we appreciate the value of peace so much...
"This land has been going through difficult times and conflicts, and people are suffering, and we want to be here today and present the meaning of peace between two sides," he said.
"We know Korea is the only nation that is divided by North and South in the world, but we still believe that even though we are not [at] peace -- North and South Korea -- [if] we come over here and pray for the people here for peace, we believe that God will provide the peace in our land also," Ahn said.
The group does not represent the Christian Zionist stream, which has become a faithful favorite of Israelis and tourism officials here. Christian Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel represents the fulfillment of God's promises in the Bible to return the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
But when asked, Joo hinted that there might have been some differences of opinion on the topic within the group.
"This whole group is 2,300 people from different backgrounds, from different denominations... Although we have different backgrounds, we have different opinions about some theological ideas. Still, we are one in Christ," he said.
The mayor of Bethlehem could not be reached for comment about the visit of the Christians, although the Koreans were due to have been welcomed to the city in an official reception.
Eli Nahmias, from the Tourism Department of the Municipality of Jerusalem, said the visit showed people have "trust and faith" when they come for a visit to Israel that they will be safe.
"You can see that they came with children and youth and older people, and they have a good time and fun, and it's wonderful to see that. It is almost like a vote of confidence in tourism in this country," Nahmias said.
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