Imagine marching into Jerusalem with your country’s flag held high to celebrate Israel and to pray for the Jews.
For some Cook Islanders this dream has come true. With their traditional and beautiful ei katu, they have stood out amongst the crowd on a spiritual journey to the Holy Land.
It was in 2002 when Luse Gukisuva, a Fijian residing in the Cook Islands for almost two decades now, began her journey to Israel through the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
In 2005, Gukisuva travelled with a group of four Fijian nationals from Cook Islands. In 2007, 10 more joined her.
On each of her visits, she would hold the Cook Islands flag high praying that one day a Cook Islander would join her on this journey.
“I always prayed that ‘Lord one day, Cook Islanders will be standing here to represent their nation. Right now, I’m standing in for the nation. I believe with all my heart that one day, Cook Islanders will come to Jerusalem and hold their flag’,” she says.
It was not until 2017, that her prayers were answered.
Twenty-seven people journeyed with her - a mix of both Cook Islanders and Fijian nationals including Paul Lynch and his family.
Gukisuva says, “Paul Lynch’s daughter Manine took the Cook Islands flag and it was a proud moment for the nation, for Cook Islanders,”
In 2018, 39 people joined the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem - Cook Islands group, while last year it was 32.
Manine Lynch was only 18 when she joined her parents in 2017, representing the country and standing proud and tall as she held the country’s flag among other nations.
Her parents heard about the group’s trip to Israel.
“We were the first Cook Islanders to go, because it was always Aunty Luse representing the Cook Islands all those many years,” she says.
“When they call the different countries, you go up on stage and hold your flag - I was holding the flag. It was an awesome feeling; I began to appreciate Aunty Luse for representing us.”
Lynch says before the main conference they visited areas that she had only read about in the Bible, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other different sites. She also got to swim in the Dead Sea.
“It was cool, the conference was in the desert surrounded with chairs and a massive stage where there were performances, there were thousands of people,” she says.
“You could tell who the Cook Islanders were because we all had our ei katu on.”
Lynch explained that for her the most important part was being in Israel and seeing the fulfilment of prophecy in the Bible.
“Everyone was praying for Israel and the people. For me it really opened my eyes to the Bible to actually see where Jesus was born, walked and grew up.”
Lynch said she went to Israel with the expectation that it would be the same as in Bible times, but it was not.
“It is more modern and tourism plays a vital part in Israel’s economy, you will see a lot of people,” she says.
Tiare Kora’s most treasured moment at the Israel conference in 2018 was at the Feast of Tabernacle.
“They had an opening ceremony where you are under the sky, the sun is setting and there is praise and worship with thousands of other people from all over the world,” Kora says.
“For me it was just knowing that I was surrounded by other people who support Israel as well, coming together to praise the Lord.”
Kora said her parents found out about the Israel trip from Mama Luse and other members who went in 2017. They have gone three years in a row.
“I never thought I’d go,” she says.
Kora shared that one night at the conference a pastor spoke about a youth group and a young girl who was in the Israel Defence Force. They had asked for prayer.
Her job was to keep a watch and ensure intruders don’t cross the border.
Two weeks later, the young woman was part of one of the major busts.
“That same night we got into groups of three and prayed for the defence force and I realised the importance of the church and praying for knowledge.”
Lynch and Kora are calling on Cook Islanders to take the opportunity and support the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem - Cook Islands and go on this spiritual journey.
They say it is safe and not scary, especially with the perceptions about the Middle East.
Lynch’s advice to potential pilgrims is “to go through the word of God, understand the history and to go with an open heart”.