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Trek to Holy Land is trying for ‘Magi’

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JUDEAN DESERT, West Bank — Now when the wise men reached the Holy Land after a 1,200-mile trek across the Middle East, behold, they were detained at the Israeli border because Palestinian gunmen had just shot an Israeli car near Jericho.

That's the modern-day version of the ancient story. It happened last week.

Twenty-one Christians from all over the world, with their camels, of course, started out on foot from Iraq to re-enact the biblical journey of the Magi to Bethlehem's Manger Square.

But when they got to Israel, two of them — both Africans — weren't allowed in.

Then lo, some angels appeared. Palestinian human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab lodged an appeal with Israel's Supreme Court, prompting Israel's Ministry of Justice to arrange the visas.

"The whole story is so biblical," laughed Kuttab. "The original Magi 2000 years ago also had to first go through the power structure in Jerusalem, who had their own agenda, before they could get to Bethlehem. It's fascinating that this would repeat itself in a different way today."

On Thursday morning, the remaining Magi arrived in Judea (the biblical name for the Jewish kingdom.)

They "rejoiced with exceeding great joy" (Matthew 2:10).

"I feel elated to finally be here. I walked all the way from Iraq," said Prosper Kwenda of Zimbabwe, a 28-year-old soccer player with the Charlotte Eagles. "God performed a miracle."

The 86-day Journey of the Magi was run by the San Diego- and Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust and endorsed by the Middle East Council of Churches. Its supporters say it has brought to life Jesus' message of good will toward all people.

The brainchild of Californian church history professor Robin Wainwright and his wife, Nancy, the Journey of the Magi is one of only a few international events in Bethlehem that have not been cancelled this year due to the Israeli-Palestinian violence that has claimed 342 lives since late September.

Even after the Magi were allowed into the West Bank, they had to stop for two more hours at an Israeli roadblock outside Jericho. Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat made a few calls that got them through to their welcoming party. Then Erekat flew off for peace talks in Washington.

But long before the multinational camel caravan got caught in the turmoil of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there were other obstacles.

Just before the planned start of the journey in September, the Iran leg of the trip had to be canceled because of an internal rebellion in Kurdistan.

"The Iranians said we really do want you here, but please, please don't come now," recalled Sami Awad, the director of the Bethlehem branch of the Holy Land Trust. "If anything happens, especially to the Americans, it would be a disaster, they said."

So the group set out along the Euphrates River from Iraq, retracing the path of the "wise men from the east" who, according to the Gospels, followed a star to Bethlehem to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn baby Jesus.

Along the way, the modern-day travelers also dispensed "Gifts of the Magi" in the form of aid to a medical clinic in Iraq, a village water project in Syria, a job-training center in Jordan and a joint Israeli-Palestinian day care center near Jerusalem.

The journey quickly became a metaphor for good will.

Iraqi Shia Muslims worked together on logistics with Syrian Christians. Cross-cultural soccer games were held in remote villages. In a Damascus market, Sudanese pilgrim Peiter Thiep bumped into friends from his hometown tribe, who then walked eight days with the group, to the border with Jordan. John Vencer of the Philippines and a few others in the group decided to fast in solidarity with their Muslim hosts marking the holy month of Ramadan.

The participants, few of whom knew each other when they set out, got along famously during an often trying trek.

"Everyone had his role," said Keith Dakin, a British player and coach for the Charlotte Eagles.

Like many in the group, Dakin was most impressed by the warm reception he and the American participants received during a month in Iraq. Ordinary Iraqis, bitter after a decade of allied bombing raids and U.N. economic sanctions, welcomed the pilgrims into their homes for tea.

But the highlight for the 13 who made the entire trip will be their arrival in Bethlehem on Monday, the culmination of a spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime.

Wainwright said many people from around the world joined parts of the trip, recalling for him the legend, which is not in the Bible, of the fourth Magi, who is said to have come from Afghanistan with jewels to try to join the others.

Along the way, he kept stopping to help people, spending all of his jewels and not getting to Bethlehem in time to see Jesus, Wainwright explained.

"But according to the story, after his crucifixion Christ appeared to the Fourth Magi to say his gifts were acceptable," Wainwright said. "We are all the fourth Magi."

The following Web sites can provide more information: www.magijourney.com and www.holylandtrust.org.