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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Kirk opens 10m Galilee retreat
The Tiberias Centre
The centre has cost 10m to refurbish
The Church of Scotland has opened its controversial retreat in the Holy Land.

The Tiberias Centre at St Andrews in Galilee, acquired in 1884 for medical missionary work, has been refurbished at a cost of more than 10m.

The project's supporters have had to cope with opposition from within the Kirk's own ranks.

The decision to proceed with the largest real estate project it has ever taken on was made by the General Assembly in 1999.

Among the 150 guests joining the ceremony were representatives of Muslim and Jewish community groups, local partner churches, mission groups and the Israeli government.

In making this commitment the Kirk was aware from the outset that it was taking on a very difficult task
Rev Ken Ross
Speaking from St Andrews, the Reverend Ken Ross, general secretary of the Board of World Mission, welcomed the new facility but acknowledged that the venture is challenging.

He said: "In making this commitment the Kirk was aware from the outset that it was taking on a very difficult task.

"A more divided, troubled and volatile area than Israel and Palestine could not easily be imagined."

Rev Ross stressed that the task for the Kirk was not to run a peaceful, profitable hotel but "to use the unique opportunity afforded by the Church's property in Israel to witness effectively to the love of Christ in good times and bad".

With tourism figures in the region shrinking since the Intifada began in 2000, there are anxieties that the hotel will not be able to attract enough visitors to be viable.

The Tiberias Centre
Support for the project has been mixed
Visitor numbers in Israel have shrunk from nearly 1.2 million foreign tourists a year to just over 640,000. Occupancy levels at the hotel are currently hovering around the 35% mark.

The Church of Scotland said it wanted the centre to demonstrate the Kirk's active commitment to reconciliation.

Rev Alan Grieg, convenor of the Board of World Mission, said he saw an important part of its role as creating a space where "Jew and Arab can meet together and share in peace-building dialogue".

There has been considerable controversy over the project.

Rev Kenneth Pattison failed in his attempt to withhold further funding at this year's General Assembly.

Our policy is to employ everyone
Rev Fred Hibbert
He believes the scheme "was an unwise investment and a high-risk use of church funds".

He also thinks it will have a negative impact upon other causes such as missionary work in the developing world.

Rev Clarence Musgrave, minister of St Andrew's Church in Jerusalem, fears the hotel could dissipate energy away from Christian-centred activity.

He has expressed unease about the employment of staff from non-Kirk and non-Christian backgrounds.

But Rev Fred Hibbert, minister at the Tiberias project, stressed that few Palestinian Christians have the freedom to work in the area and emphasised the importance of an ecumenical ethos.

He said: "Our policy is to employ everyone. I would be distressed if we didn't have any Christians working at Tiberias, but equally I would be distressed if we didn't have any Jews or Muslims."

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