The planned lease of 14 hectares on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to an association of evangelical Christians led by American religious broadcaster Pat Robertson to build a "Heritage Center" has stirred mixed reactions among other Christians.
The land is tucked between key sites in Jesus's ministry and will be turned into an evangelical Christian tourist destination, Israeli tourism officials say.
One local Arab leader said it could bring positive change for the Arabs in the Galilee who suffer from high unemployment. "I think it is something good," said Mohammed Yousef, the mayor of Masshad, a village of 7,000 people in the Western Galilee, many of whom are unemployed. "Tourism brings work."
Foreign religious leaders, however, criticized the plan, saying it will change the sensitive status quo between the churches in the Galilee region. Rigid rules agreed upon centuries ago between the different churches, and followed to this day, dictate which Christian sects care for which Christian holy sites.
The potential deal for turning over biblical lands to develop a tourist destination underlines how ties have strengthened in recent years between Israel and evangelical Christian groups that support the Jewish state.
Israel says evangelical leaders have agreed to raise $50 million to build a Heritage Center on the site, hoping to attract tens of thousands of religious pilgrims a year.
Robertson said in a statement that he was "fully cooperating" with the project but no deal had been formalized. He added that he is thrilled 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.
Israeli Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson said he expects a contract to be signed soon.
Israel will consider leasing the land for free, said Ari Marom, director of the ministry's North American department. He said the site could eventually draw as many as one million pilgrims a year and that many visitors would spend about $1.5 billion and support almost 40,000 jobs. "It's a win-win situation," Marom added, "Israel is giving over public land to a more or less public organization that will be used by millions of people."
The park area is on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee northeast of Capernaum, a favorite site for pilgrims because the New Testament calls it Jesus's "own city" (Matthew 9:1) and they can view the foundation of a synagogue where he preached (Mark 1:21).
Under the plan, Christians would build a broadcast center from which to evangelize, an open-air chapel and an auditorium for re-enacting Jesus's journeys in the area, a Tourism Ministry brochure says.
Israel also plans to develop areas around the holy sites. Paths lined with sculptures and plaques would connect a triangle of holy sites: Capernaum; the Mount of Beatitudes, where tradition holds Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; and Tabgha on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the faithful believe he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Evangelical Christians contribute millions of dollars to Israel every year and support the Jewish state in its conflict with the Palestinians, though the two sides are at odds over theological issues.
Some evangelicals believe that if Jews don't ultimately accept Jesus, then they will perish. And, Israel objects to the proselytizing that is a mainstay of the evangelical movement. At the center itself, however, evangelicals would not preach to Jews.
"The Tourism Ministry recognizes that it's time for us to have a stake in this as well," said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based group that represents evangelical Christians.
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