JERUSALEM (RNS)--Israeli environmentalists are charging that construction work on the historic Mount of Beatitudes in preparation for the upcoming papal visit threatens to destroy the area overlooking the Sea of Galilee, which had been virtually untouched for the 2,000 years since Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount.

Government contractors are working around the clock to level a portion of the rocky mountainside above the historic Church of the Beatitudes to build a huge amphitheater for the tens of thousands of pilgrims 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 nearby land to accommodate the thousands of buses and other vehicles bringing pilgrims to the area. To clear the land, tons of huge basalt rocks have been removed from the mountain and dumped nearby.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which raised the alarm over the work, said it wants the government to commit itself 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 the work, has so far refused to issue any such commitment.

"We don't want to stop the Mass. We want it to happen. But we want to repair the damage after it is created," said Yohanan Darom, director of the Society's northern office.

"The Mount of Beatitudes is in an area that we call `holy geography'--it's the area where Jesus walked, and there are layers of 2,000 years of history at least," Darom added. "It's ironic that for this holy Mass, we have to do so much damage. I'm sure that if the pope understood what was happening here, he wouldn't agree to it."

Darom said his biggest fear is the infrastructure work that has been undertaken for the papal visit will pave the way for real estate developers to later build shopping centers, restaurants and hotels on the site.

"If the damage that has been created isn't repaired, then in another month, some entrepreneur will come with a plan for a hotel, and they'll say the site has already been degraded, so why not build?" said Darom.

Darom said the work was initially undertaken without legal permits on orders from Minister Haim Ramon in the prime minister's office. Ramon is 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 and there 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 of the new parking lot sites was apparently winding its way through local planning committees.

"There is no way that we can promise that there won't be building there in the future," said the spokesman.

The scenic mountain areas around the Sea of Galilee have been the subject of a fierce tug-of-war between developers who want to exploit the area's prime real estate and environmentalists who want to preserve the 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 a legally protected nature reserve, although recently Israel's Ministry of Tourism has talked about the importance of preserving the original landscape of the area for the millions of pilgrims who visit every year.

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