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Journeys to Explore Religious Roots : Tours: Religion-based travel sometimes involves different faiths, and the Holy Land is only the beginning.

August 22, 1993|JACK ADLER

Religion-oriented tours differ both by faith and by purpose. A trip could be primarily spiritual and denominational, or offer standard sightseeing in which religious affiliation isn't a question.

"While most religious tours tend to have people of the same faith, there are mixed or inter-faith groups, especially between Christians and Jews," said Charles Pankow, president of Woodland Hills-based Friendship International Tours, which handles customized tours around the world.

"These inter-faith tours are growing in popularity as members of both faiths are increasingly eager to learn more about each other and the common origins of their religions," Pankow said.

Friendship International Tours expects to operate in excess of 20 mixed-faith tours to Israel and the Holy Land in 1993 compared to less than 10 in 1992, Pankow added.

Jerusalem and other Israel/Holy Land sites are the major destinations on most itineraries, but not the only ones.

While the majority of Catholic religious tours focus on the Holy Land, another key site is the Croatian town of Medjugorje, where in 1981 the Virgin Mary is reported to have appeared to six young people (a vision not substantiated by the local bishop). But because of fighting in the former Yugoslavia, travel to this destination has dropped.

Firms offering religious tours are on the lookout for other possibilities.

To illustrate, Select International, a tour operator offering religious programs for Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Christians in general, is offering a tour for the first time in 1993 to Betania, a small town near the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. On Nov. 21, 1987, after an investigation, the local Bishop of Los Teques approved the validity of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, making it only the fourth site to be so sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th Century. The others are Fatima, Portugal; Akita, Japan; and Kiebeho, Botswana.

"Pilgrimages began to Betania about two years ago, and we think a substantial number of Americans will make the pilgrimage to this South American area," said Edita Krunic, president of the Kenilworth, N.J.-based firm.

The religious tours division of Elegant Cruises and Tours, which has programs to Fatima, Lourdes and Medjugorje, is also developing a tour to Betania, according to Mato Stanovic, president of the Port Washington, N.Y.-based company. The firm's programs, while primarily Catholic, are open to everyone, Stanovic said.

Select International has also introduced a new series of tours in 1993 called "In The Footsteps Of" which focuses on the life of a particular saint in one country, such as St. Patrick in Ireland and St. Francis in Italy.


About 50% of Select International's tours are specifically for Catholics, 10%-15% for members of the Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths, and the rest for general Christian groups, Krunic added. "While the tours are open for everyone, they tend to attract people of the same faith. No one has ever gone on one of our tours who wasn't a Christian. It's a personal question, but we do ask people what religion they are at the time of booking. This is important because some travelers don't understand that these religious tours have more spiritual than sightseeing values, and this emphasis is what they find most surprising. These tours are a pilgrimage to a large extent and not just regular travel. Those that want a standard tour package shouldn't be going with us."

Even within Christianity there are different aspects of the tour, Krunic said. "Catholic groups, for example, are more interested in sites about the Virgin Mary, while the Protestant groups are often more interested in general Biblical sites. Catholic groups have Mass every day, while other denominations may not hold services daily."

Regardless of the religious orientation, no attempt is made to convert, Krunic emphasized. "We've had people come back who have complained that there wasn't enough time for shopping, but no one has ever said that there was too much praying."

Heritage/Bibleland Travel, based in Louisville, Ky., offers religious tours to the Holy Land. "Our tours have mostly Southern Baptists, but we've had Catholics as well as other Protestant sects," said manager Rhonda Haycraft. "We don't ask what religion someone is, but we let them know that the tour is for Southern Baptists."

While services are occasionally held, the primary focus of the tours is Biblical study and education.

But often tours feature non-religious segments.

One trend has been to combine cruises with a tour to the Holy Land. "The cruises were put in the programs due to the demand, but the sailings are for leisure," Haycraft said. "The religious program is on land."

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