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Holy Land still safe for pilgrimages, says head of U.S. tour group

Washington

The head of a Michigan-based tour company that leads trips to the Holy Land said the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas so far has not had an impact on pilgrimages he and his associates lead.

"Everything is still functioning like in any other normal business day. The sector of tourism industry to the Holy Land is not affected," said Steve Ray, a tour guide and CEO of Footprints of God in Ann Arbor.

Ray spoke to Catholic News Service in a telephone interview after recently returning from a trip to the Middle East, where he was planning his organization's upcoming pilgrimage tours.

He and his wife, Janet, have guided thousands of people through Israel and other biblical lands in the Middle East and Europe over the past 20 years.

On July 8, Israel began airstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas militants lobbing missiles into Israel; Israel began its ground campaign into Gaza on July 17. By Wednesday, the Israeli death toll stood at 53 soldiers and three civilians; the Health Ministry in Gaza said more than 1,200 Palestinians had been killed and more than 5,700 wounded.

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U.S. officials have been unsuccessful in pressing Israel to accept an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised speech Monday that his country must be ready for "a prolonged campaign" against Hamas in Gaza.

John Hale, president of the Corporate Travel Service in Dearborn, Mich., said the ongoing conflict is a serious humanitarian crisis and "a very difficult situation," but said it should not prevent anyone from traveling to the Holy Land.

"Tourists are not the [ones being] targeted but everyone has to decide for himself as whether to travel or not" to the Middle East, he told CNS.

Corporate Travel Service arranges the Footprints of God pilgrimages and tours, and similar trips for student groups, religious groups and others, according to its website. It also arranges performance tours for choirs and orchestra, theme cruises and vacations.

Ray reiterated that it is still safe to travel to the Holy Land, noting that an Israeli military operation in Gaza does not affect the entire country, and he encouraged people who have made plans to visit there to stick with them.

"It is an amazing opportunity to walk in the footprints of Jesus," Ray said. "It changes lives."

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