The Israeli government is planning to give up a large slice of land to American Christian evangelicals to build a biblical theme park by the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have walked on water and fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.
A consortium of Christian groups, led by the television evangelist Pat Robertson, is in negotiation with the Israeli ministry of tourism and a deal is expected in the coming months. The project is expected to bring up to 1 million extra tourists a year but an undeclared benefit will be the cementing of a political alliance between the Israeli rightwing and the American Christian right.
However, the alliance has not been welcomed by all Israelis, including some who fear the ultimate aim of the evangelicals is the conversion of the Jews to Christianity rather than support for Israel.
Jonathan Pulik, a spokesman for the Israeli ministry of tourism, said the Christian market was very important for Israel’s tourism industry. “We would like to give them more of a reason to come here. We would be willing to lease the land to them free of charge and they would finance the construction.”
The site of the centre, covering nearly 50 hectares (125 acres) and provisionally called the Galilee World Heritage Park, would be north-east of the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and Capernaum which was described as the town of Jesus in the Bible. It would feature a garden and nature park, an auditorium, a Holy Land exhibition, outdoor amphitheatres, information centre and a media studio.
The ministry of tourism estimates the total cost would be $48m (?28m). Mr Pulik also pointed out that the project would bring large numbers of jobs to the area. Mr Robertson said in a statement that he was “fully cooperating” with the project but no deal had been formalised. He said he was thrilled that “there will be a place in the Galilee where evangelical Christians from all over the world can come to celebrate the actual place where Jesus Christ lived and taught”.
The Sea of Galilee is more reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands than the Middle East, particularly in winter and spring when the hills are green. The existing Christian sites are picturesque and understated oases of calm and there is even a Church of Scotland hotel and church in Tiberias, the main town in the area.
A major part of the shore of the Sea of Galilee was Syrian until it was conquered by Israel in 1967. Syria and Israel are still officially in a state of war and Syria insists the return of the Golan Heights and the Galilee shore is a prerequisite for peace.
Uri Dagul, the project coordinator, said the land issues would be concluded within a few weeks and then the final details would be agreed between the Israeli government and the Christian communities which are primarily American evangelical churches.
The American Christian right, best known for television evangelism and its stars such as Mr Robertson and Jerry Falwell, has been among the strongest supporters of Israel in the US.
The primary reason is that according to the Old Testament, Israel was given to the Jews by God. Fundamentalist Christians believe that in order for Jesus to return, two preconditions are Jewish control of the land of Israel and the conversion of the Jews to Christianity.
Yossi Sarid, a former government minister and member of the Knesset, said he was wary of the friendship of the American Christian right and projects such as the Galilee centre. He said: “I am not enthusiastic about this cooperation because I have no desire to be cannon fodder for the evangelists.
“As a Jew, they believe I have to vanish before Jesus can make his second appearance. As I have no plans to convert, as an Israeli and a Jew, I find this a provocation. There is something sinister about their embrace.”
Avraham Hirschson, the Israeli tourism minister, said: “I’m not a theologian, I’m the minister of tourism, and I’m not interested in the politics of our tourists as long as they come here. They come here as tourists, and they’re friends of Israel.”
Jan. 4, 2006
Conal Urquhart in Tel Aviv