As anxiety and frustration grow among Canadians trying to get out of war-mobilized Israel, Maria Moreno is grateful she isn’t one of them.
The parish secretary at St. Nicholas in Langley had made all the necessary arrangements for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was to depart the weekend of the Hamas attacks on Israel. She had prepared the parish bulletin for the three weeks she would be away, all her bags were packed, and the visas she and her husband needed had come through a nail-biting four days before her flight was to leave.
Then, as news of the Hamas terrorist attacks emerged, it became increasingly clear to her and other pilgrims from Langley that Israel would be off limits.
“It didn’t take too long that we found out the borders were closed,” said Moreno. “When they said, ‘no, the religious sites are off limits, the borders are closed,’ [my husband and I] decided not to go.”
Moreno admits being puzzled by how God allowed everything like last-minute visas to fall into place just before the trip. “But I guess this is his way of telling me that this was not the time.”
The travel company organizing the trip offered a modified itinerary that removed Israel from the trip in favour of extra days in Egypt and Jordan. Pilgrims had to decide whether to carry on with the Egypt-Jordan part of the pilgrimage or stay at home.
Moreno said the company has been helpful and provided pilgrims who stayed home with the necessary documentation so they can make trip cancellation claims. Those who didn’t have trip cancellation insurance weren’t eligible for a refund.
A representative for travel agency Royale Orchid Tour & Holidays told The B.C. Catholic that it strongly advises travellers to purchase cancellation and health insurance, but it’s an individual decision and details of coverage are specific to each individual. Whether or not health insurance covers claims for accidents or injuries occurring in an area with escalating regional conflict would depend on the individual health insurance policy.
Some in the group decided to proceed with the trip regardless of risk or financial concerns, Moreno said. The pilgrims met to pray about whether they should continue after the violence, and many said they felt God was still calling them to go.
Led by St. Nicholas pastor Father Nixon D’Silva, less than half of the original group decided to depart for Egypt and then on to Jordan, removing the days planned for Israel. While they won’t walk the places where Jesus lived during his ministry, Egypt and Jordan have abundant holy sites, and the group will be going to Mount Sinai, among other places.
For Moreno, staying home was a hard decision, but there are worse things than disappointment. Her children counselled her to be grateful that she wasn’t in Israel at the time of the attacks, advice that has been validated by stories of stranded pilgrims and Canadian nationals trying to flee Israel.
A group of 25 pilgrims from Southridge Fellowship Church in Langley were trapped in southern Israel when the attacks took place.
Paul Olson, an executive pastor at Southridge, told the Canadian Press he received messages from the tour group Saturday saying they were safe. He worked with Brent Chapman, the pastor leading the group, to find a way for the group to get home.
“There was no support whatsoever from the Canadian Consulate,” he said. “There was no support from Air Canada; they had no idea what they were supposed to do. And the Canadian Government didn’t help at all.”
Subsequent advice from the government to stay away from Gaza was unhelpful, he said, and the group made its way to northern Israel and eventually into neighbouring Jordan.
The St. Nicholas pilgrims who decided to stay home have been meeting daily to pray for their fellow parishioners.