Government contractors are working around the clock to level aportion of the rocky mountainside above the historic Church of theBeatitudes to build a huge amphitheater for the tens of thousands ofpilgrims expected to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his late March visit to the site.
Huge parking lots are also being built on dozens of acres of nearbyland to accommodate the thousands of buses and other vehicles bringingpilgrims to the area. To clear the land, tons of huge basalt rocks havebeen removed from the mountain and dumped nearby.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which raised thealarm over the work, said it wants the government to commititself to repairing the damage to the mountain after the pope departs,adding it will file suit to ensure the scars aren't permanent.
But Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office, which is coordinating thework, has so far refused to issue any such commitment.
"We don't want to stop the Mass. We want it to happen. But we wantto repair the damage after it is created," said Yohanan Darom, directorof the Society's northern office.
"The Mount of Beatitudes is in an area that we call `holygeography'--it's the area where Jesus walked, and there are layers of2,000 years of history at least," Darom added. "It's ironic that forthis holy Mass, we have to do so much damage. I'm sure that if the popeunderstood what was happening here, he wouldn't agree to it."
Darom said his biggest fear is the infrastructure work that has beenundertaken for the papal visit will pave the way for real estatedevelopers to later build shopping centers, restaurants and hotels on thesite.
"If the damage that has been created isn't repaired, then in anothermonth, some entrepreneur will come with a plan for a hotel, and they'llsay the site has already been degraded, so why not build?" said Darom.
Darom said the work was initially undertaken without legal permitson orders from Minister Haim Ramon in the prime minister's office. Ramonis coordinating plans for John Paul's March visit.
When the Society for the Protection of Nature first raised the alarm recently, permits were suddenly issued by local authorities, leading to the environmental group to question their legality.
A spokesman for Ramon's office dismissed the Society's claims,saying the land would "repair itself" within a matter of months andthere is no need to rehabilitate the site after the pope leaves.
The spokesman did say, however, that a plan for a "day hotel" on one ofthe new parking lot sites was apparently winding its way through localplanning committees.
"There is no way that we can promise that there won't be buildingthere in the future," said the spokesman.
The scenic mountain areas around the Sea of Galilee have been thesubject of a fierce tug-of-war between developers who want to exploitthe area's prime real estate and environmentalists who want to preservethe landscape, which remains largely covered with farm fields, flowers and natural bush as it was in biblical times.
The conflict is heightened by the fact that the area is not alegally protected nature reserve, although recently Israel's Ministry ofTourism has talked about the importance of preserving the originallandscape of the area for the millions of pilgrims who visit every year.