Church group stuck in Israel back in UK after Jordan border crossing

Father Nenad Popovic (right in black robes) with the group in Israel (Father Nenad Popovic/PA)
Father Nenad Popovic (right in black robes) with the group in Israel (Father Nenad Popovic/PA)

A group of British tourists who were stranded in Israel with their church have returned to the UK after a 24-hour journey which saw them cross the border to Jordan in a bus.

Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Lazar in Birmingham travelled to Israel on October 1 to visit holy sites.

But following the Hamas attacks last weekend they had to shelter in a hotel in Jerusalem, where they could hear bombs as they waited several days.

Father Nenad Popovic, 44, who organised the trip, said most of their wider group of 50 were able to fly home from the Israeli capital Tel Aviv but, after a flight was cancelled on Wednesday, 18 of them took a coach from Jerusalem to the border with Jordan.

The church group during their trip
The group were on a pilgrimage (Father Nenad Popovic/PA) (Father Nenad Popovic/PA)

They travelled east through the West Bank to the Jordanian border, and while the mood on the bus was “tense” the road was safe and they witnessed no hostilities, Fr Popovic said.

“All flights from Tel Aviv were delayed or cancelled and it was not possible to do anything and the best way was to take the bus,” Fr Popovic told the PA news agency.

“In one moment, you may panic, but after that and you see you can’t change anything, that’s it. Pray and everything will be OK.”

After crossing the border the group took taxis to Jordan’s Amman Civil Airport, where they waited for 10 hours for a flight to Antalya, Turkey, before flying to London Stansted on Thursday .

Fr Popovic, who is now back in Birmingham, said his group of 18 were the last to travel and all 50 members of the wider church group are now back in the UK.

The group at their hotel in Bethlehem
Fr Popovic said he is happy he and his group are safely back at home in the UK (Father Nenad Popovic/PA) (Father Nenad Popovic/PA)

“I’m so happy that we are (safe) and all together,” he said.

“I am home in Birmingham and we are all at home at the moment, everything is fine, (everyone) is safe at home, rested, and I am in touch with them on WhatsApp.”

The group, which included about 30 Britons and three children, had been in a hotel in Bethlehem when Hamas attacked the region on Saturday.

“We were witnessing the rockets, the firing, the people running around and shouting, so we were not safe any more so we moved to Jerusalem,” Fr Popovic said.

Fr Popovic, originally from Serbia and who has lived in the UK for 45 years, said while they had been staying in Jerusalem the group could hear car horns, detonations and “sometimes bombs”.

“It’s not my first war, I had problems in Serbia in 1999, but for a lot of the group it was their first time to be in the war, to hear the horns and sirens, to hear the bombs,” he said.

“It’s just a bad experience.

“I was locked with my friends over there in somebody else’s war.”

Fr Popovic said he was “annoyed” the church group did not receive assistance to return home from the UK or Serbian governments.

“The disappointment was from both of my governments, one in Belgrade and one in London, that nobody did anything,” he said.

Natasa Jovanovic-Hole, whose father Jovan Jovanovic, 71, was among the group, said she had minimal contact with him during his journey to the border due to connection issues.

The mother-of-two from Birmingham told PA: “I was really concerned about the journey, really, really stressed, just because of hearing horror stories about other people who have done that journey, it’s horrific.

“We’ve had minimal conversation because of the wifi.

“(Wednesday) night, I cannot explain – it was like I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t breathe, the panic was horrific.

“It’s not pretend, this is real life.”

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spokesman said: “We don’t comment on individual consular cases.

“However, we can confirm we are in contact with, and assisting, the families of several individuals in Israel and the OPTs.”