A theme park for the Holy Land?
American Evangelicals and Israeli officials plan to unveil this month a $60 million park where Jesus walked.
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Ever since Benjamin Netanyahu - Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999 - cultivated ties with US Evangelicals and other Christians during his tenure, Israeli governments have sought to strengthen relations with the sector of the Christian world which, for religious reasons, tends to take a pro-Israeli view of the Arab-Jewish conflict. On Mr. Robertson's website, he says that God gave this land "to the descendants of Israel," not to "so-called Palestinians." Older churches, such as Orthodox and Catholic denominations, have more local Palestinian followers and tend to support that side of the conflict.Skip to next paragraph
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But Uri Dagul, the head of the Israel Youth Hostels Association and the creative force behind the project, says it is more focused on tourism than politics. The idea, he says, reflects an improvement in Jewish-Christian relations, underscored by the visit of Pope John Paul II here in 2000. Mr. Dagul says the project should be a nondenominational Christian center, not an explicitly Evangelical one.
Some of the existing churches and monasteries the shores of the Sea of Galilee - such as in Tabgha and Capernaum, where Jesus lived for a time, were built as recently as the early 1900s by prominent churches in the Holy Land: the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics, represented by the Franciscans. But the area has not, more recently, been developed for visitors, says Dagul, and so the busloads of tourists who come to the coast north of Tiberius find it difficult to secure a place to pray and reflect, much less find a rest-stop equipped to accept hundreds of pilgrims.
"Jerusalem comes only later in the story, but most of Jesus' history is in the northern part of the Sea of Galilee," says Dagul. "We can give people the opportunity to experience it, to pray here, to broadcast to their home congregations, to walk on Jesus' trails. People go to churches all over the world, but this is the place where it happened."
A spokesman at the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), which represents Christian Zionists from around the world, views the center as an important step towards developing sites for Evangelicals, whom he says make up the fastest-growing segment of Christians.
"The Protestant world in general got a late start on the Bible-sites business. While the Greek Orthodox - as the successor to the Byzantine empire - and the Roman Catholics have been involved in identifying Christian sites and maintaining them for pilgrims for centuries," says David Parsons of the ICEJ. "It's very astute of the Israeli government to do this, with all the support of the Evangelical world out there," he adds. "We have a stake in the tourism industry here, and this gives us a place to call our own."
Whether the development will resemble a study center more than a theme park is unclear. The developers say they plan to check kitsch and commercialism at the door. "No way will it be a Disneyland. We have to keep the spirit of the place," Dagul says. "You can see the movie about Jesus' life, then see the mountain," he says, referring to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, containing some of his essential teachings. "But if we lose this spirit, with too many lights and projectors, it will be a catastrophe."
And bowing to protests from Orthodox Jewish groups, the Christian partners will have to agree not to go out and proselytize to local Jewish Israelis.