A theme park for the Holy Land?

Jerusalem, Israel - 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.

"It thrills me to think 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. It will be our pleasure to fully 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.

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.

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.