For Middle Eastern Christians, pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other sites in Jerusalem is a time-honored tradition. Yet most, even if they live relatively near the holy city, are unable to visit it, as Robert Nicholson writes:
The problem is Israel—or rather, that most Arab and Muslim countries consider Israel to be an illegitimate enemy state. Citizens who have even the slightest contact with it or its people are frequently punished under any number of formal bans and boycotts. Some countries like Egypt and Jordan are less hostile, looking the other way when citizens visit Jerusalem to pray. But Christians in other countries, especially those within the Iranian sphere of influence, undertake pilgrimage at their own risk. They may enter Israel without incident but will almost certainly face prosecution and detention upon their return.
Lebanon is a cause for special concern as the Middle Eastern country with the highest percentage of Christians. . . . But while [Lebanese] Sunnis and Shiites remain free to visit Mecca despite conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Christians are forbidden from visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher due to conflict with Israel. Prosecution under the 1955 Boycott Law or Article 278 of the Lebanese criminal code awaits anyone who thinks otherwise.
In October, U.S. diplomats will convene a symposium in Rome to address religious freedom, humanitarian aid, and human trafficking, among other issues of shared concern with the Holy See. They should also take the chance to issue an unequivocal statement affirming the importance of pilgrimage to people of all faiths and calling on Lebanese officials to rescind all laws and regulations that place a permanent bar on Christian visits to Jerusalem. . . . Here the engagement of Pope Francis is crucial.