Orlando's new Holy Land

ORLANDO -- In his flowing Middle Eastern robes, Coptic Bishop Youssef stood out among the other tourists in the newest theme park next to the highway between Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

Then again, he fit right in with the Holy Land Experience staffers who wear period costumes on the streets of this 15-acre model of old Jerusalem. And he felt surprisingly at home inside the Wilderness Tabernacle exhibit, a multi-media dramatization of the rites, chants, incense, vestments and holy art of Israel's ancient priesthood.

"Of course, this (ritual) is the shadow of things to come, a shadow of the worship we see in our churches in the here and now," said Youssef, who now leads the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States. "This is all a shadow of the glorious worship we will see in heaven for eternity."

That's lofty praise, coming from an Egyptian monk. But this also explains why controversy has swirled around this non-profit park since it opened in early February.

The Wilderness Tabernacle program opens with a tape of an Orthodox rabbi chanting Hebrew prayers from Deuteronomy. It ends with the narrator asking if the burnt offerings of the ancient Hebrews would someday lead to God offering the "perfect lamb" to die for the sins of the world -- Jesus. In other words, the Jewish covenant is a prelude to the final Christian covenant.

Jewish leaders in Orlando have cried "foul," saying the Holy Land Experience twists their traditions and is a tool to proselytize Jews. Its creator, they note, is a self-proclaimed "Hebrew Christian."

Marvin Rosenthal is, in fact, the grandson of Orthodox Jews and the son of conservative Jews. So far, he said, a few Jews have visited the park -- along with atheists, liberal Christians, Buddhists, Moslems and many, many busloads of Christian conservatives.

"We aren't hiding anything," said the 65-year-old Baptist minister, who converted as a teen-ager. "I don't mind people taking issue with our theology. What I mind is people who say that we don't have a right to share our beliefs or who deny that what we're saying here is what Christianity has proclaimed as the truth for 2,000 years."

Take that Hebrew chant from Deuteronomy. This is the same prayer that Jesus spoke when scribes asked him to name the greatest commandment. Jesus began by quoting: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One."

"Yes, this is an ancient Jewish prayer," said Rosenthal. "But this is also a prayer on the lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It's our prayer, too. ... You can't understand the New Testament unless you see it in the context of Jewish believers and their faith. You have to understand the old in order to appreciate the new."

The irony is that this echoes what Israeli tour guides have said to Christians for decades, as buses roll past Jewish and Christian holy sites in Israel. But Rosenthal is not the Israeli Tourism Board. This message is much more controversial when delivered at a Christian park five miles from downtown Orlando and 7,000 miles from Jerusalem.

Rosenthal calls his creation a "living biblical museum" and it offers exhibits, pageants and pop-gospel music rather than rides and games. There is an "Oasis Palms Cafe," but no "Water Into Wine" bar. There is, alas, no reverse-bungee "Rapture Ride."

The shops in its Jerusalem Street Market sell a few crosses, but display a much wider selection of menorahs, shofars and Stars of David. The bookstore shelves include "Let My People Eat! Passover Seders Made Easy," alongside "The Sign: Christ's Coming and the End of the Age (Updated Edition)."

Terri Dyer, a Vietnamese convert from Buddhism, said this is a strikingly different set of symbols and messages than she encounters at Orlando's First Baptist Church.

"I think more people need to realize that the earliest Christians were Jews. They wouldn't have been walking around wearing crosses," she said, standing in an exhibit line with her husband and baby. "I think seeing all of this helps me identify with the early church. ... The Bible describes all kinds of things, but sometimes it's hard to picture what it would have looked like. This park helps you see things."