Christians in Ghana have been granted the privilege of becoming pilgrims once again to holy sites in Israel after being banned in the late 1990s following reported cases of pilgrims absconding.
A National Steering Committee made up of leaders of the various religious bodies, as well as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Chieftaincy and Culture, has been constituted under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations to oversee to the success of the planning of the pilgrimage.
The committee would therefore be responsible for the final registration, screening and authorisation of application of interested participants.
Nana Owusu-Nsiah, Ambassador to Israel said at the re-launch of the Christian Pilgrimage to Israel yesterday that the embarrassing situation, apart from tainting the reputation of Ghana as a source of credible and genuine pilgrims, also hampered the pursuance of the Ghana Mission's cultural mandate.
He explained that a series of negotiations between the Embassy and other competent Israeli authorities, with the support and patronage of RMR Group, an Israeli-based tour operators, got the Government of Israel to grant Ghana a conditional reprieve.
"To obtain the full lifting of the ban on Ghana, the Israeli authorities required the assurance of a quasi-government support of pilgrims, through a recognised body to screen all applications to ensure credible and genuine candidates," he said.
Nana Owusu-Nsiah said other requirements were ensuring the total involvement of the Ghana Mission in Israel in the monitoring of pilgrims to avert possible absconding and also to co-operate with the Israeli authorities to apprehend recalcitrant people who absconded.
Government is also to ensure that prospective pilgrims are identifiable and credible Ghanaian individuals whose presence in Israel posed no security risk and danger to the host country.
Nana Owusu-Nsiah said the Israeli authorities had requested Ghana to organise a pilot pilgrimage of 100 people beginning from the first week in July, to establish a workable system for the screening, selection, embarkation, hosting and touring and the return to test the viability of Ghanaian Christian pilgrimage.
He said it was on the successful completion of the pilot pilgrimage that a total reprieve would be granted Ghana to send as many pilgrims as desired.
Nana Owusu-Nsiah noted that the initiative, apart from availing to the Ghanaian Christian pilgrim the rare opportunity to render a sublime duty to faith, had the potential of strengthening the cultural ties between the two countries.
Mr Sampson Kwaku Boafo, Minister for Chieftaincy and Culture, explained that initial application and screening of interested participants would be done by the churches. "The entry age has been fixed at 40 years and above to minimise the risk of absconding often ventured by the youth," he said.
The Minister cautioned the leadership of the various churches who would be tasked to work on the application to desist from undue delays, as the steering committee would only consider applications on first come first served basis.