Albion Monitor /News

Planned Philippines Catholic Theme Park

by Luz Rimban

(IPS) MANILA-- To his most avid followers, Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin could well be the Filipino version of a modern-day Moses.

In 1986, they say, he led the Filipino people out of their misery and into the Promised Land of democracy, when he called on them to gather in a civilian revolt that later led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1992, he gave Filipinos guidelines on whom to elect to the presidency. Last year, he rallied them against what he called the threat of dictatorship from President Fidel Ramos.

Soon, the cardinal may well also tell them where to worship.

There is talk of plans to have an image of the risen Christ emerging from the basilica's roof at certain intervals of the day to remind devotees of his ascension
If things go as planned, the end of the century would see Cardinal Sin leading his Filipino flock to an enchanted city by a lake, nestled on a scenic mountain south of Metro Manila.

There, on a 55-hectare spread, will lie a $47.7 million park, a replica of the Holy City of Jerusalem, where Filipino Catholics can pause and pray while meditating on Christ's life and death. More than 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholics.

But critics say the money for the religious theme park, called the New Jerusalem/Holy Land Project, is better used to build orphanages for the poor or shelters for the abused.

Plans for the religious theme park include a reconstruction of the Via Dolorosa, the path Christ took on the way to his crucifixion. Those walking this path will see life-size models of the 14 Stations of the Cross along the way.

There could even be a Sea of Galilee and perhaps a huge basilica, not unlike the ancient Church of the Ascension built in the old Jerusalem as a monument to Christ's entry into heaven.

Likewise, there is talk of plans to have an image of the risen Christ emerging from the basilica's roof at certain intervals of the day to remind devotees of his ascension.

The target date for the project's completion is the year 2000, which also marks the start of the third millennium of Christ.

"It will be a place where people can go and pray, a place where more people can be accommodated," said Bishop Crisostomo Yalung of the Archdiocese of Manila, who was appointed by Cardinal Sin to oversee the project.

Yalung calls it an effort "to deepen the faith" since it will bring people closer to God in "a place where there is less noise, and where they will be in contact with nature."

But it is the wrong way, the wrong place and the wrong time, says a group of lay leaders and businessmen-supporters of Sin, who have been trying to dissuade him from pursuing the project. For one thing, critics say the project could become just a religious carnival or theme park with no social relevance.

Former Ambassador Alejandro Melchor, who first broached the idea to Sin and headed the project for more than a year, recalls the original idea was a "Disneyland park with a Bible theme."

But a religious Disneyland would have been out of place amid the squatter shanties of Payatas, Quezon City, the original site for the New Jerusalem/Holy Land Project. A survey conducted by Melchor and his group among Payatas residents found that "what the people wanted was schools, employment, housing. They didn't want a Holy Land."

The plan then underwent a remake months ago, when a former official in the Marcos government, Jose Conrado Benitez, got wind of it and donated his land in Caliraya, Laguna province, to the Archdiocese of Manila for the New Jerusalem/Holy Land Project. A real estate firm owned by the Benitezes has reportedly been hired as project developer.

In April, Melchor quit the group because, he says, he thought they were deviating from the plan's original intent.

A church-sponsored park could provide just the right touch of spirituality to draw the crowds and the cash
So far, proponents say the plan remains on the drawing board and a technical committee is finalizing the blueprint. Meantime, at least seven of the country's top architects are pooling talents for the New Jerusalem/Holy Land Project.

Melchor is worried that a project that should have the public ministry of Jesus as its main mission may not reach its intended beneficiaries. "Where are the poor in Caliraya?" he asked.

Poverty is rife in Caliraya town, located in Laguna province south of Manila. It is not surprising that the area was once a base of communist guerrillas.

But the weather is cool and the view panoramic, making Caliraya a favorite of real estate firms building residential communities, resorts and golf courses for the rich. A church-sponsored park could provide just the right touch of spirituality to draw the crowds and the cash, some say.

Yalung refuses to talk about money, but says the Church will not be spending a single centavo for the project. Funding will be coming from donations and investments, he says.

Businessman Louie Reyes notes that with the $47.7 million project cost, "you can already send several Filipino pilgrims to the real Jerusalem."

Said one critic: "It would be a waste of the cardinal's clout if he uses it raising money for this project." Reyes added: "What we are afraid of, if this pushes through, the Church will get so much flak, they will have a hard time defending it."

But Yalung says it's too early to panic: "We're working quietly. And we're being cautious, looking at it from all angles. If there is a flaw somewhere, we won't hesitate to scrap the whole project."

Reyes says he and fellow Sin supporters will continue trying to get him to suspend or at least hold off the plan. But in the end, they say the cardinal will prevail. Said Reyes: "If the cardinal says follow, we will follow. Like good soldiers, we will follow and just count the casualties later."

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Albion Monitor February 2, 1998 (

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