National Catholic Register

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Where Christ Was Born

Will Theme Park Commercialize The Holy Land?

BY Michele Chabin

December 18-31, 2005 Issue | Posted 12/18/05 at 1:00 PM

 

JERUSALEM — The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is concerned about two new initiatives being spearheaded by evangelical Christians. He fears they will be woefully out of touch with Holy Land Christians.

The first initiative is a proposed monthly Christian edition of the Jerusalem Post. But the project raising the most hackles is a Holy Land theme park.

The project, announced in May but only now getting off the ground, is the creation of a $60 million Christian Heritage Center near the Sea of Galilee that will be funded by American evangelical Christians. The Israeli government will provide the 125-acre plot free of charge, as well as the infrastructure.

Father Humam Khzouz, the Latin Patriarchate's new chancellor, fears that the park's creation is merely the Israeli government's way “to appease evangelical foreigners by providing them a holy site to call their own. While we welcome any collaboration among members of the various faiths, the project around the Sea of Galilee smells more political than religious.”

Other local Christians tended to agree. Jonathan Kuttab, a Jerusalem-based lawyer who identifies himself as an “evangelical Christian Palestinian,” told the New York publication Jewish Week that although he has no objection to a Christian Heritage Park in theory, “from what I've heard, this park appears to be an attempt to create a commercial attraction that is totally divorced from the local Christian community.”

Kuttab, who sits on the board of Sabeel, a Palestinian organization that has held conferences denouncing Christian Zionism, believes that the vast majority of evangelical Christians who visit the Holy Land “tend to ignore, or are even hostile to” Palestinian Christian heritage, what he terms “the most authentic, the most spiritual heritage around.”

When pilgrims visit the holy sites “without visiting the living Church, the living stones, the people who live here,” Kuttab said, “then they are missing the true value of the pilgrimage.”

Atallah Mansour, a Greek Catholic from Nazareth, fears that the park could be a source of tension for Christian Arabs in nearby villages.

“Hopefully it will provide some jobs, but the question is really whether it will provoke its Arab neighbors,” Mansour said. “I don't think the way many evangelical Christians think. They're pro-Israel, which is fine with me, but they are also anti-Palestinian.”

Added Mansour, “If they were opposed to the disengagement, then we're not part of the same species. We're not entitled to tell them not to support Israel, but they're not entitled to be anti-Palestinian.”

The Newspaper

The other project is a joint venture between the newspaper and the International Christian Embassy, a staunchly pro-Israel evangelical organization based in Jerusalem.

Every year the Christian Embassy brings thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Feast of Tabernacles, and provides ongoing humanitarian aid to Jews and Christian Arabs. Last month, the Embassy launched an “anti-divestment” campaign to encourage evangelical Christians to invest in Israel, a move intended to counter the Presbyterian Church's “divest from Israel” campaign.

In an interview with the Register, Father Khzouz said that “although we welcome the interest of all journalists, including the local media, in Israel, in Christian affairs, the fact that none of the 13 traditional churches of the Holy Land — none of them — are involved in determining the content of such a supplement, makes [it] far from being wise and representative of the true reality of Christians in general and local Christians in specific.”

The vast majority of the Holy Land's Christians — the community stands at less than 200,000 due to a steady stream of emigration — are Arabs and identify with, or are themselves, Palestinians. Many resent the fact that American evangelical Christians, who view the ingathering of the Jews to the Land of Israel as a central component of their faith, are overwhelmingly pro-Israel.

The way the Jerusalem Post is marketing its Christian edition (the motto is “Stand With Israel, Pray for Israel, Comfort Israel”) clearly sets the tone. The promotional edition, which was distributed during the Christian Embassy's annual conference in the fall, contains a mix of articles, including a piece on the Protestant divestment campaign and why it is important for Christians to invest in Israel, as well as an investigation of how the European Union funds the Palestinians.

David Parsons, the Embassy's information officer, said that the paper will be geared toward “the growing Christian Zionist movement,” but that “it's also going to have articles on the diversity of Christians in the Holy Land. We'll have articles on biblical sites, travel, history, archaeological excavations.”

Malcolm Hedding, the Christian Embassy's director, was more direct. When he learned of Father Khzouz's opinion of the paper's direction, Hedding replied, “We're not excluding anyone or fighting with anyone. We closed the deal with the Jerusalem Post as a proactive initiative. We honor and love other Christians, and they're free to put together their own initiative. We're not going to apologize to anyone for our beliefs.”

Although the Christian Embassy is not involved with the proposed Christian Heritage Park, it does support it in principle.

“It will encourage more Christians to come on pilgrimages to the land, and that is a good thing,” Hedding said, noting that most of the Christian institutions located around the Sea of Galilee are associated with the Catholic Church and other traditional churches.

“From what we've heard, the Heritage Park will appeal to all Christians,” he said, “but it will also have special meaning to evangelicals.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.