A theme park for the Holy Land?
American Evangelicals and Israeli officials plan to unveil this month a $60 million park where Jesus walked.
Officials in Israel say that out of about 2 million people who will realize their dream of visiting the Holy Land this year, more than half will be Christian. And among those, more than half will be Evangelical.Skip to next paragraph
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With that in mind, the Israeli ministry of tourism has gone public with a plan to build - in partnership primarily with American Evangelical churches - a sprawling Holy Land Christian Center on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, home to some of the most notable chapters in Jesus' ministry. The center, to be built on approximately 125 acres that the Israeli government is offering free of cost, would be a Christian theme park and visitors' center, one that would be particularly attractive to Evangelicals and other Christians who want to spend more time in the places where Jesus walked.
Highlights may include a Holy Bible Garden, full of plants and trees mentioned in the New Testament, and equipped with quiet sites for reflection and prayer. A Sea of Galilee Amphitheater will overlook the mouth of the Jordan River and hold 1,500-2,000 worshippers. And the park will have a Christian Experience Auditorium and a Multimedia Center. The center would also feature an online broadcast center, which would give religious leaders an opportunity to address their followers back home, live, near the tranquil blue waters of the Sea of Galilee (which today is considered a lake).
"It will focus on the real places where Jesus walked," says Ido Hartuv, a spokesman for the tourism ministry. "It's a place where pilgrims can touch the experience - they can touch the Bible."
Israeli officials say they are in advanced discussions with several prominent churches that will serve as investors and builders of the $60 million center. Tourism Minister Abraham Hirschson told the Haaretz newspaper that he hoped the first of several agreements would be signed this month, and that one of the key figures at the heart of the project would be Pat Robertson, the prominent televangelist and founder of The 700 Club.
"It thrills me to think that there will be a place in the Galilee whereEvangelical Christians from all over the world can come to celebrate theactual place where Jesus Christ lived and taught. It will be our pleasure tofully cooperate with this initiative of the Israeli Government," says Mr.Robertson.
The plans to build the center - and to turn a large swath of the pastoral waterside territory, from Magdala to Bethsaida, into a Galilee World Heritage Park, complete with hiking trails along paths Jesus would have walked - come at a time of seesawing in relations between Israel and various US churches.
Several mainline Protestant churches are considering pulling their money out of the stocks of companies that sell military equipment to Israel in a protest against Israel's dealing with the Palestinian intifada. Churches considering an economic boycott point to the building of the West Bank barrier as well as an expansion of Israeli settlements over the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 boundaries. In August, the Presbyterian Church passed a resolution to explore divestment, but no final decision will be taken before the church's next convention in the summer of 2006.