Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Israel to lease Kinneret shore land to Evangelicals

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Last update - 23:28 10/10/2005

Israel to lease Kinneret shore land to Evangelicals

By Irit Rosenblum

Along the northeastern edge of Lake Kinneret, the landscape is quiet, the wind blows gently and the Korazim River meanders tranquilly, much as it did in the time of Jesus, but this undisturbed vista may not last much longer. Plans are underway to develop an evangelical Christian center in the area - a mini-Israel of sorts and perhaps a biblical theme park. As part of the project, Israel will initially lease 125 acres (500 dunams) in the area between Capernaum, Tabgha and the Mount of Beatitudes. The idea: to build a center that will provide Christian believers with a sense that "Jesus lived here." Some see the project as having great potential to attract pilgrims.Indeed, most tourism to Israel is Christian. In 2000, for example, 2.7 million tourists visited Israel, of which 1.5 million were Christians.

Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson says evangelicals will invest $50 million to $70 million in the project, and that they will design the area with Israeli consent. Hirchson says, "I hope that in November we'll be able to sign the first agreement." Hirchson believes that the new center will draw a million to 1.5 million additional tourists a year. "Certainly, from there they will also continue on to Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem," he says. The center is also likely to add a day to pilgrims' visits to the Galilee and it is estimated that every day with 100,000 visitors means income of $130 million. Several months ago Hirchson appointed a steering committee chaired by Uri Dagul, head of the Israel Youth Hostels Association. According to Dagul, evangelicals are interested in life in Israel, unlike the Catholics. Until the Six-Day War, Jordan was the Holy Land for Christians. Few pilgrims visited Israel then. After 1967, when most of the pilgrimage sites came under Israeli control, the trend shifted.

Among evangelicals also, Israel's victory was perceived as divine intervention, and subsequently there was a steady flow of evangelical pilgrims to Israel. "There are 90 million evangelicals in America and 300 million around the world. If just one percent of all of them comes to Israel, that would be enough," says Dagul.

However, there are some who argue that the Lake Kinneret area should not be designated for evangelicals alone, but should be made into a general Christian heritage site or even a biblical theme park, which would also not deter Jews. "The bottom line is that there is an agreement in principle that this will be a center for Christians of all kinds, but evangelicals will be running the project," stresses the tourism minister.

The northeastern area of Lake Kinneret was chosen for the project because most chapters of the New Testament refer to Jesus' activity there. From this area, he sent out his disciples to spread the gospel; he lived there in Peter's home in Capernaum; many of his deeds took place there; and he often visited Korazim, Beit Zaida and Migdal. "Here Christian tourists shed tears, here they are moved by religious emotions. This is the No. 1 resource that can be offered to the Christian world," says Dagul.Dagul, who took the job as an unpaid volunteer, says that the Christian tourist arriving in Israel sees the lack of development of Christian sites and the overall low level of services. "There is no reenactment of what went on in Jesus' day, the state didn't take this upon itself as a mission," notes Dagul.And who is the group with whom the negotiations are underway? "We are talking about a broad group, and at its heart one of the key figures will be Pat Robertson," says Hirchson. Robertson, an Evangelist from the U.S., is widely known from the "The 700 Club," the Christian news and talk show that is the flagship of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Agreement has been reached on a joint planning committee, with the proviso that the architect would be a local one. According to Dagul, there is inter-ministerial consensus on the project. When Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister, he received a delegation of evangelicals and promised to advance the project. The state is providing the land and the Finance Ministry would help fund infrastructure and access roads. Finance Minister Olmert has supported the project based on the agreed outline "by helping to remove statutory obstacles relating to land and infrastructure, with the actual funding for the project coming from the Christian organizations."

Opponents to the project, among them the chairman of the Yad L'achim organization, Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifschitz, who met with Tourism Minister Hirchson, argued that bitter experience with evangelicals leaves no doubt regarding their missionary activity. The Ministry of Tourism says the project calls only for a visitors' center, with staffers saying, "Israeli children will not sit down there to learn about Jesus."
Hirchson is determined to bring the project to fruition. "I will get the whole project approved in a government decision," he says

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