Tourists visit Jerusalem in Argentina

Buenos Aires, Argentina - What would Jesus do?

At a theme park in Buenos Aires, he rises to the heavens on the hour, every hour, as the rousing chords of Handel's Messiah blare out of speakers suspended from plaster palm trees.

Welcome to Tierra Santa -- Spanish for the "Holy Land" -- where catechism meets adventure park.

The park is promoted as the first religious theme park in the world, called "a voyage across time to get to know what ancient Jerusalem was like in the time of Jesus".

Located between Argentina's bustling domestic airport and a water park, it offers a religious experience drenched in kitsch.

Tierra Santa is the brainchild of director Maria Antonia Ferro, a former physical education teacher who decided the world needed a utopian Jerusalem, without impediments to religious tourism like violence and contemporary politics.

A few private investors and $7 million later, Tierra Santa opened its doors in 1999, hosting about 3 million people so far.

Although it may be one of a kind in South America, Tierra Santa is not alone in the divine theme park market. The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, opened in 2001, founded by a Christian convert from Judaism amid controversy over its aims.

The Israeli government and American evangelicals are also planning to build a Christian heritage centre in the Galilee region of Israel, a project at one time partly funded by television evangelist Pat Robertson.

"No way will it be a Disneyland. We have to keep the spirit of the place," steering committee leader Uri Dagul of the Israeli park told the Christian Science Monitor in a 2005 interview.

But that vision differs sharply from Tierra Santa.


The park's press agent calls it the "Disney of religion" and its shows feature multi-coloured spotlights illuminating mechanical figures' jerky movements as they play out scenes like the Nativity and the Last Supper.

For 15 pesos (about $5), patrons can stroll through the plaster city, centered around a climbable version of Mt. Calvary, experiencing dance spectacles, popular religious history, and what's billed as typical period cuisine.

After visiting a papal gazebo and a Roman palace stocked with marble and slaves, they can buy candles and pray to various saints, or pose for photos as a humble peasant woman, robe-clad Arab, or imposing Roman soldier.

Enough life-size statues of peasants, soldiers, and saviours are in the park to give Madame Tussaud a run for her money.

In the multicultural corner, statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther join a church, synagogue and mosque, while signs in Hebrew and Arabic remind guests there is no smoking in utopia.

Tierra Santa, however, is a serious endeavour for many patrons. Although Buenos Aires is noted more for its secular liberal views than its piety, 92 percent of Argentines identify themselves as Roman Catholic.

The park draws visitors from across Argentina and Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Latin America is home to half of the world's 1 billion Catholics and is seen by the Church as a key area of influence.

Many patrons find the theme park experience quite spiritual.

As a turquoise-lit Christ ascended from the mountain, displaying his advertised 36 movements and 18-metre height, elderly women put their hands together in prayer.

Nearby, the Wailing Wall's crevices are filled with real notes of prayer, which park officials say will be transported to the original wall via the Catholic Church and an Israeli envoy.

"It's very emotional," said Ferro. "We have recreated the culture of 2,000 years ago, how people ate, how they prayed, how they lived, how women dressed.

"Here, people can get to know the place and its vibrant history without having to travel 10,000 kilometers."