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A Theme Park for the Holy Land?

from Christian Science Monitor

JERUSALEM – 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.

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.

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.

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