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God kept our pilgrims safe during attack

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Matt Leslie with his wife near the Sea of Galilee. Photo: Supplied
Matt Leslie with his wife near the Sea of Galilee. Photo: Supplied

On the eve of his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a worried 42-year-old Matt Leslie said a quiet prayer to the Lord.

“I asked him to keep me and my wife in his care. And that night, I felt the Lord speak to my heart, promising to keep us safe.”

Little did he know how prescient the Lord’s promise would be. Matt’s dream trip set off just as the conflicts in Israel erupted.

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On 7 October at 6:30am, after a week visiting Bethlehem and surrounds including the Church of the Nativity, Matt and his tour group of 38 pilgrims found themselves en route to watch the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee.

His tour leader with Harvest Journeys, Costandi Bastoli, was a 75-year-old Palestinian born Australian who has led an annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the last 30 years.

“It was a spectacular scene and a beautiful time of reflection. About half the group decided to walk the Jesus Trail, from Nazareth to Capernaum,” Costandi told The Catholic Weekly.

They weren’t to know that at that exact time Hamas gunmen had breached the border between Gaza and Israel.

As Matt and his group reached the end of the trail, news of the breach reached the group.

It was a surreal and shocking moment for the Australians on tour.

“It was an indescribable feeling,” Matt said. “The juxtaposition of the beauty of Galilee, but also being mindful of the devastation of what was happening … I can’t describe it,” he recalls.

The real panic set in back at their hotel, when the group realised their next stop in the morning was Jerusalem, bringing them closer to the violence.

“That’s where the angst set in,” Matt said. “We hit the prayers quickly. We all felt a sense that the Lord would protect us.”

While the news was worrying for Costandi, he was overcome with a dreaded sense of Déjà vu: “I felt, ‘Here we go again. Another war, more casualties, more death, more destruction.
But I had to quickly focus on the safety of the pilgrims in my care.’”

And as more horrific scenes filtered through, the pilgrims drew even more on their Catholic strength.

“We spent the rest of the day in the hotel where we also celebrated Mass and offered it for peace in the land,” Costandi said.

Luckily, as war was declared, back home in Australia, Harvest’s CEO Selina Hasham had been working through the night on an evacuation plan.

“The gravity of this situation soon became apparent, and we knew we had to act fast to get our pilgrims to safety,” she said.

“It became clear that getting to Tel Aviv airport was risky, so instead we opted for a plan to get them overland and across the border into Jordan.

“This posed its own problems as the border crossings from Israel into Jordan kept closing without warning, and many people were trying to flee to safety. It was a measured risk, which we took, and thankfully it was the right decision.”

The group returned to Australia safely,

For Matt, back home in Sydney, he immediately thought of his prayer to God on the eve of departure, “I felt the Lord saying I am fulfilling that prayer. I feel in my heart, He kept us safe.”

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