NAZARETH, Israel – Dressed in his embroidered robes, the Rev. Andreas Elime steps from the altar of St. Gabriel’s Church and into the view of the Web cams on the church’s marble pillars. His voice fills the empty 250-year-old sanctuary with a Greek Orthodox hymn, while a computer on a nearby pew transmits personal blessings to three Americans thousands of miles away.
Christian pilgrims have long traveled to the boyhood town of Jesus to seek blessings. Now the Internet can save them the trip.
A service recently launched by Modefine Ltd., a Cyprus company, enables worshippers to log on and watch as a priest utters a prayer for them.
“This takes things to a new level,” said James Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of the Roman Catholic magazine America, who has watched religious trends develop on the Internet. Martin said in a telephone interview that the technology also gives believers a new way to carry out an old practice: asking others to pray for them in sacred places.
“Going to Israel is quite expensive,” said Martin. “So for people who can’t afford it but can afford their monthly (Internet) bill, this is one way to do it.”
Since opening on May 1, the site has fielded hundreds of requests, some 70 percent from Americans but also from Hong Kong, India, Mexico and Australia, said Said Salem, Modefine’s Holy Land representative.
“We have something special here,” he said. “Mary lived here. Jesus grew up here. This is a holy town. This is the basis of Christianity.”
St. Gabriel’s Church stands over the spring where Greek Orthodox tradition says the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Catholic tradition holds that this event took place about a mile away, under the modern Basilica of the Annunciation.
Martin’s only concern was the fee – $10 per prayer. Salem said it covers system costs, not the prayer, which is free.
“If you come from Jerusalem to get the priest to pray for you, you don’t expect the priest to pay for the taxi,” Salem said. “We are the taxi.” He said he hoped the service would eventually raise funds for the Nazareth Christian community.
After the opening hymn, Elime prays for mercy, health, peace, forgiveness and salvation. He does services in English, Greek, Arabic and Russian. He reads the first names on that day’s list, lighting a candle for each. A short benediction closes the service, which lasts about four minutes.
Sitting in the stone-walled courtyard of his nearby monastery after the service, Elime said four priests do two services a day, seven days a week, praying for five to 10 people daily.
Elime mentioned one American man who orders prayers over the Web weekly. Another woman recently placed an order after her daughter disappeared.
Metropolis Kyriakos, the Archbishop of Nazareth, said he would prefer people visit the church in person, but that he saw nothing wrong with the online ceremony. “If I even smelled that something was not right, I would cancel it all,” he said, tapping his nose.
For Robert Jeffords, a frequent user of the site, online prayer was the only way to reach the Holy Land. “I’m 66 now and almost immobile,” Jeffords said by phone from Hollywood, Fla., citing diabetes and leg infections. “So a trip to the Holy Land would be impossible.” After reading about the service on a Catholic Web site, Jeffords ordered two prayers for his family.
“I was actually part of it,” said Jeffords, who is Catholic but says he has Greek Orthodox icons on his wall. “I was there.”
Jeffords has since ordered two more prayers, one for the anniversary of his mother-in-law’s death, another for his son and his son’s fiancee.
“Thank God for my Internet service,” Jeffords said. “There’s a lot of good stuff on there. There’s trash, too, but you can find good stuff if you look around.”
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