Religious tourism

By Muyiwa Adetiba

There are many reasons people go for pilgrimages. Some go because it is on their ‘wish to do list’—like education, marriage and children. Some go because it seems worldly and elitist as well as an escape from the doldrums and monotonies of the village life. Some go because they think it will enhance their self-esteem and earn them respect among their peers.

A modern Orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist built next to the Jordan River.
A modern Orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist built next to the Jordan River.

Some see it as a badge of honour which is reflected in their change of complimentary cards and which those around them must immediately acknowledge. Some go because it is available and someone—government or a rich relative—is paying.

Some go as businessmen; to use the allotted foreign exchange to buy sellable goods. Don’t be surprised that some see it as a tryst; a place to take their mistresses or concubines to and experience the thrill of sex in a forbidden or holy land.

Some however go for genuine reasons; to seek the face of their Lord and ask for humility and grace to adhere to the tenets of their faith. Some also go either to start or complete powerful prayer sessions. And because the reasons are varied, the outcomes are also varied.

A highly placed official once regaled us at a private get together of how he chased a fellow pilgrim—who was married— in a bus on the way to Mt Sinai and ended up sleeping on her bed that same night. Some years back, a top aide to a governor arranged for two of his girl friends to go on a pilgrimage with him. No guessing what must have taken place there.

This is not to say that people go there only for frivolous reasons. A popular senator in the Shagari administration who was known for his weekly champagne parties came back a complete teetotaller. Only recently, a socialite came back so transformed from a pilgrimage that he eventually became a ‘Baba Adinni’ which in the Islamic circle, is a high clerical office. And then there are politicians and government officials who steal or misappropriate, go for pilgrimage to seek forgiveness, only to come back and steal some more. Many there are, who pass through the holy lands without the holy lands passing through them. They come back as devious and as manipulative as they went.

The host countries also recognise the varied reasons people come to their countries and have no qualms about them— as long as you come with the almighty dollars. Accommodation, transportation, food, religious sites, religious symbols, memorabilia and guides don’t come cheap. Saudi Arabia has oil but I often wonder how Israel and Egypt would have survived without the millions of dollars that pour into their countries every year through religious tourism.

Yet Israel cannot be described as either a Christian or a Muslim country. The peasants sell their religious tokens from the same pouch. Once in a while, mistakes have been made as has happened to a friend who wanted a rosary and was sold a ‘tesuba’—a Muslim bead. These peasants keep their religion to themselves while glibly switching from one to another if it will help their sales.

It is however obvious from the number of fake things they sell that their real religion is the dollar. The guides too are very adroit in guiding the pilgrims to where they can get ‘the purest’ and ‘most genuine’ of articles while they bad mouth other places—all for a commission of course. Everything is extolled and put out for sale—from the oil in mount Olives, to the bottled water from rivers Jordan and Nile, to the mud in the Red Sea. Copious literature is written about the efficacy and healing power of these ‘valuable and must have items’.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against going on a pilgrimage if you can afford one. I recently went on one to mark a landmark birthday. Fortunately, it was during the latter part of lent so I had done about 30 days of fasting and penance. I went to the Upper Chamber on the anniversary of the exact day Jesus had the last supper. I worked the short distance where Jesus carried His cross and had the stations of the cross along the route with fellow pilgrims.

I went to Mount Olives and the transfiguration site and spent a few moments in meditation at the garden of Gethsemane. I visited the birth places of Jesus, Mary and Peter. I touched the Red Sea and took a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee. By Easter, I had crossed over to Rome where I celebrated Mass with the Pope officiating. All these— and more—were heady stuff.

But even as I said my prayers of faith at each location, I had no illusion that these were historic sites that had been turned into a money spinner by the host countries. What I have said about Israel and Italy can be said about Egypt, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and India. It is religious tourism at its best. Will I go again? Yes, if I have the means to do so. It’s my money; it’s my call. And that’s the rub.

I draw the line when government decides to get involved with pilgrimage in whatever form. To start with, Nigeria is not made up of Christians and Muslims alone. There are people of other faith including the agnostics. To make a concession only for Muslims and Christians will be unfair to them as it will short change them. Secondly, we have refused to make a concession for our children studying abroad (educational tourism); believing that we should all invest in home grown education.

We no longer make any concession for foreign medical treatment (medical tourism). We should all make do with our dispensing clinics as hospitals. These two are foreign exchange guzzlers and it is right that we should stop subsidising them at this time when our purse is virtually empty even though they have their benefits on the future health of the nation. We can hardly say the same about religious tourism. What benefit is it to the nation? The scripture says that ‘God is spirit’ which means we can worship Him anywhere as long as we do so ‘in sprit and in truth’.

Should any concession be made at all, it should be on the importation of critical raw materials for our ailing industries. But we all know it would be exploited and abused. A level playing field means therefore, that there should be no concession whatsoever—in health, education, industry and religion.

By the way, with the level we have raised religion to in Nigeria,  people all over the world should be coming to visit us with their dollars. They will have enough to behold— our prophets, miracle healers, magnificent churches and mosques. If Abu Dhabi can make millions of dollars every year with its state-of-the-art mosque why can’t The Redeemed Christian Church of God with its one kilometre by one kilometre auditorium. I am sure it will be a sight to behold when it is finished.

Religious tourism on Vanguard News.

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