Religion new Jamaican tourism lure

Kingston, Jamaica - This tropical isle has long marketed its beaches, waterfalls, foliage and water sports to tourists from around the world.

Now it's marketing a hidden resource: religion.

But it's not Rastafarianism, the homegrown messianic sect that sprang up in the 1970s from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Instead, the Jamaican Tourism Board is trying to interest evangelical and charismatic Christian groups to visit the island.

It has put together religious tours of Kingston, the country's capital, and recently started marketing a yearly Fun in the Son gospel festival held every March in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Kingston.

Judging from a visit to the island last month, the effort is still in its infancy, but Jamaica hopes to lure foreign tourists and cruise-ship passengers looking for a different kind of spring break.

"We really know there's a need for this," said Carlene Davis, a singer who converted to Christianity in 1996 and is a chief festival organizer with her husband, Tommy Cowan. Over the years, she said, the island's music industry has been slowly Christianized with the conversions of personalities such as Judy Mowatt (a vocalist who worked with the late reggae star Bob Marley); rapper Papa San (born Tyrone Thompson in Spanish Town); and reggae singers Junior Tucker, Chevelle Franklin and Lt. Stitchie, stage name of vocalist Cleve Laing.

Gospel music festival

Reggae, which started in the 1950s as a combination of Jamaican folk music with American rhythm and blues, is one of the island's most famous cultural exports.

But religion as a tourism draw is on the rise, too. Next year, Fun in the Son will be one of the events officially marketed to visitors during the International Cricket Council's 2007 Cricket World Cup.

Religion is all-pervasive on this 146-mile-long island of 2.6 million people. Cars and auto-service garages have slogans like "God is love" or "Love God Car Grease," The travel Web site runs essays on religion, and it is said that Jamaica has 600 Christian denominations and a church every square mile.

Jamaica's new religion-marketing strategy is "an extension of what's represented in our motto: 'Out of many, one people,'?" said David Shields, the country's deputy director of tourism. "As a country, religion plays an important role in the lives of our citizens, so hosting religious events is natural to us.

"Plus, there's a high level of tolerance here in understanding others' views, which, when you look at the world today, is quite a point of pride."

The form of Christianity most prevalent on Jamaica is Pentecostalism, which migrated south soon after its origins in the United States a century ago. Its popularity is a reaction against Europeanized religion, said Ashley Smith, former president of the Jamaican Council of Churches.

"A lot of Rastas wanted to identify with poor black people and people who are resisting European culture and anything that reminds them of colonial days," he said. "Pentecostalism is also seen as a resistance against European theology."

Starting with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus, Europeans began arriving on the island in 1494. The island's native Indian population either died of foreign diseases or were killed off by the new arrivals, and so today's Jamaicans are descended from an estimated 676,376 African slaves. Most were imported from Ghana by the British starting in 1655 to work the island's sugar-cane plantations.

Baptist missionaries from the United States helped bring an end to slavery in Jamaica two centuries later, as did native Baptist preachers -- one of whom organized a rebellion in 1831 against the sugar planters.

Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians set up missions on the island, as did Seventh-day Adventists, who built a university and hospital there. The one group that never got a foothold in Jamaica were the Lutherans.

There are small groups of Hindus and Muslims on the island, but no mosques. The most prominent non-Christian group is made up of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. They are part of the diaspora of 300,000 Jews who began fleeing the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered them to leave Spain.

The refugees arrived with Dutch settlers, who as Reformed Protestants were tolerant and kept the Caribbean one of the few places in the world where Jews were not persecuted. Today, the island's most visible sign of Jewish life is Kohal Kodesh Shaare Shalom, a temple on Duke Street in Kingston dating back 350 years. Like several other synagogues scattered about the Caribbean, it has unusual white-sand floors. They are thought to resemble hidden synagogues in Portugal and Spain that also had sand floors to help worshippers muffle their footsteps.

All religions respected

There are 21 Jewish cemeteries on the island, showing a population of 2,500 Jews at the height in the mid-1800s. About 200 Jews live in Jamaica today, but there are no rabbis to lead them.

"We're a diminished congregation," explained caretaker Ainsley Henriques, who shows visitors about the white-walled, oak-furnished temple, rebuilt in 1912. "There's no career advancement for a rabbi here. It's not a progressive congregation that rabbis are flocking to."

Nevertheless, he adds, life is good here.

"Jamaica is one of the most philo-Semitic communities on Earth," he said. "There is such religious tolerance here. We respect each others' religions."

Religion is taught in Jamaican public schools, and Jamaica is the first country where the Roman Catholic Church joined the National Council of Churches -- a mainline Protestant group in most countries. "There aren't lines of demarcation here between denominations you see in other countries," said Mr. Smith, the Jamaican Council of Churches' former president.

The island is also marketing its waterfront Jamaica Conference Center in Kingston as a venue for church conventions. Outfitted with a restaurant, numerous meeting rooms and interpreters' booths, it already hosts the United Nations' gatherings connected with the International Seabed Authority, which is based in Kingston.