While the world was watching missiles being fired back and forth between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza Strip recently, a group of East Bay Christians were traveling around Israel and Jordan with little worry about their safety.
Members said their tour group, Pilgrim Tours of Morgantown, Penn., made them feel safe by keeping them abreast of any potential danger. Not once during the trip was the group ever warned of any trouble.
"It's an interesting issue," said the group's co-leader, Pastor Steve McCoy of Concord and Fair Oaks Church of Concord. "Pilgrim Tours has people on the ground over there, and had they said, 'Don't come,' we wouldn't have gone. But it was just the opposite. They said everything was OK and to come (in the days leading up to their departure, even as bombings were occurring). Some (in the original group) believed the media and didn't come. I wasn't afraid."
The group of some 25 would-be travelers included Karen Leong of Concord, and her husband, Darnell, who first broached the subject of going to Israel to McCoy back in the spring. Karen Leong made no bones about being afraid before the trip.
"I was concerned even when we were planning the trip," she said. "(Pilgrim) made me feel safe from the beginning, so I said 'OK, let's go.' Even after we got there and the bombings were going on, I felt safe. The tour company was on top of it. Security was top-notch."
The group, which included a contingent from Golden Hills Church in Brentwood, led by Pastor Rick Moe, left the Bay Area on Nov. 17, and arrived the next day in Tel Aviv, still a few hours north of Gaza near the Mediterranean Sea. From there, the group traveled north by bus, away from the shelling.
They visited such famous Christian and Jewish sites as Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Petra and Bethany, before departing Dec. 3.
The tour drove near the Syrian border at its northernmost point and into Jordan (four days of travel) at the farthest point south, but again, the group said it felt safe at all times. McCoy said most of the sites the group visited were archaeological in nature in rural areas and away from large population sites.
McCoy said he first traveled to Israel in 1993 as part of his doctoral studies in theology, and said he saw more military presence at that time, than on his second, recent trip.
McCoy noted that tourism is a very important to Israel, a Jewish nation that shares a common spiritual heritage with Christians and Muslims. Too, Israel is surrounded by countries that are considered hostile, McCoy said, so it behooves the Israelis to be well prepared.
"They're prepared for anything to happen," he said.
In Israel, young men (three years) and women (two years) spend mandatory time in the military and are always kept on reserve duty.
Steve's wife, Andrea McCoy, said she saw a group of young women soldiers who appeared to be fresh out of high school going through military training.
"Our guide told us it's a way of life for them," she said. "'We're surrounded by enemy forces. We learn to deal with it.'"
The McCoys said that every hotel in Israel they stayed in was equipped with "safe rooms," usually on the interior and away from outside windows.
Virtually the only time that military presence was seen was at the airport and while entering Jordan and back into Israel. Steve McCoy noted that security was less stringent going into Jordan. In Israel, while the group's passports and luggage were being checked, their bus was getting a thorough check, too.
McCoy compared tourism from the points of view of Israel and Jordan, neighboring nations.
"Israel has really developed in the last 25 years," he said. "They realize (tourism) is their bread and butter, and they want (tourists) to have a good experience. Israel has it together, while Jordan ... not so much. (Jordan) needs to put more dollars into tourism."
Part of the money Israel has spent has gone toward protecting its citizens and its tourists, he said. When the group neared checkpoints or locations where military personnel were stationed, taking photographs was not allowed.
"Nothing made me feel scared on the trip," Andrea McCoy said. "Every time we'd go through a checkpoint, nothing made you fearful. There was never a sense of alarm. I never felt threatened for a second."