All photos courtesy of Claire and Allison Prezioso
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When George Prezioso decided to take his second pilgrimage to the Holy Land he knew he was in good company traveling with Msgr. David Cassato, Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello along with friends from across the Diocese of Brooklyn.
But this trip was especially meaningful for Prezioso, a Grand Knight of the Holy Sepulchre since 2000, because he was joined on the journey by his wife Claire and their daughter Allison.
Prezioso first visited Jerusalem in 2009 to receive his Knights shell, the highest decoration of the order. The Holy Land was hit hard by the pandemic and lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism due to the halt of pilgrimages and visitors wanting to view the sacred biblical sites. Since things have recently opened up, this pilgrimage brought members of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, whose mission is to support the holy places and the holy shrines.
Among the highlights of the trip for Prezioso was visiting historical biblical sites in Capernaum where Jesus went to live after he left Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and first taught the Lord’s Prayer. Also special was an opportunity to take part in a solemn procession by the Knights into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the Crucifixion took place followed by a Mass in the tomb with the pilgrims, and a visit with family in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born.
Prezioso said he felt at home in the Holy Land in mind, body and soul, and that he always wanted to return to Jerusalem. He credits Msgr. Gigantiello for encouraging him to make the return visit and bring his family.
“I’ve known Msgr. Jamie since he was first ordained and came to St. Pat’s in Bay Ridge. He baptized my children and I consider him a very dear friend,” explained Prezioso. “When I saw that he and Msgr. Cassato were going with the Knights, I knew that it would be a very enjoyable and spiritual journey.” Prezioso was delighted when his wife Claire and his daughter Allison said they wanted to go along as well.
“I couldn’t wait to explore my Christian roots and walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples,” recalled Allison. “I felt a sense of complete peace walking into Jerusalem. I got to float in the Dead Sea, ride a camel, attend Mass every day and visit the Sea of Galilee, the daughter added.
“And it all felt unreal, and just so beautiful and magical. I was almost convinced that it was a different sun the way it shined with the rays coming down,” Allison said.
Claire Prezioso was elated to visit the Holy Land with her husband and daughter and said it was especially meaningful as she and George renewed their wedding vows during the pilgrimage. “It’s one thing to study religion in school, but to actually go there was just a rebirth of learning about Christ,” she said. “I was speechless at times and I cried at times and it was spiritual on the highest level.”
George couldn’t wait to share the experience of the places he had already visited, but this trip would also introduce the Prezioso family to George’s maternal cousins, Shibley and George Kando, where Shibley owns an antiquity store in Bethlehem and George runs a gas station.
While Prezioso was raised Roman Catholic, his mother was Antiochian Orthodox with family roots in Damascus, Syria. While her father left Damascus and came to America, one of his brothers moved to Brazil and the other settled in Bethlehem, a city where Christians have become a dwindling minority.
In 2022, the the breakdown of Christians living in Israel was 40% Greek Christian Catholics or Melkites, 32% Greek Orthodox, 20% Roman Catholic and 7% Maronite, according to Palestinian Authority census data.
Shibley Kando explained that the entire Holy Land is not as big as Long Island. “The complication here is that there are several cultures and two countries in the same land,” explained Kando.
“Being a Christian in Bethlehem is different from being a Christian in Jerusalem, in Nazareth or in Haifa. People there are under an organized government authority that takes care of them,” Kando said.
“When you think about the Christians of Bethlehem, they are the most neglected, the most abandoned and our worst situation is what we experienced during the pandemic with our churches,” he said.
Kando credits the Catholic Select to Give Foundation for helping raise funds for those Christians in need in the region.
In Bethlehem, the Christian population in the region has declined from 84% in 1922 to 22% in 2007 according to a 2020 survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
According to Kando, it has declined even further over the last few years to 18% in the region and in the last survey taken of Bethlehem in 2017 there were less than 1% Christians in Bethlehem.
Prezioso added that the ultimate irony for him regarding the status of Christians in the region was a comment that a cab driver made to him during his trip that, “the Israelis look at us as Arabs and the Muslims look at us as Christians so we’re stuck in the middle.”
While Prezioso had known about his cousins in Bethlehem, this would be the first time they would actually meet. At the end of the pilgrimage, Prezioso made plans to spend a day with them.
“The plan that day was to leave early in the morning, have lunch in Haifa, visit the Mount of Transfiguration and then visit my cousins at the Kando store,” said Prezioso. “We arrived as the store was closing and finally got to meet and go out to dinner. It was such a great feeling. I got goosebumps, especially with my wife and daughter by my side.”
For his part, Kando was thrilled to meet his American family. “It was so very touching and emotional meeting them for the first time,” said Kando. “It was just heartwarming to meet my cousins here in Bethlehem.”
For Allison it was the perfect ending to a life-altering journey. “Meeting my relatives was just such an incredible way to wrap up the trip. My cousin Shibley reminded me so much of my dad in his mannerisms and the way he walked out with his hands waving in the air. He looked just like my dad and they looked more like brothers than cousins,” explained Allison.
“I knew that embarking on this pilgrimage would be an experience of a lifetime but I did not anticipate the depths at which I would uncover a strengthening faith within myself,” Allison added. “There is something so profound about feeling so familiar with a place and people I’ve never been to or met before.”