• ISRAEL \ Jun 26, 2001
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    Church's hotel project raises grave dispute
Church's hotel project raises grave dispute Several ultra-Orthodox bodies and government ministries are applying heavy pressure in an effort to block the construction of a hotel, belonging to the Church of Scotland, in the center of Tiberias. The hotel is being built on land that contains ancient graves of unclear religious provenance.

As a result of the pressure, the Israel Antiquities Authority has postponed its excavations in the area and it is uncertain when these will begin.

For their part, the ultra-Orthodox are threatening to hold mass demonstrations in the area, similar to the ones they held against the construction of the Ganei Hamat hotel in Tiberias.

Even the Foreign Ministry became involved, contacting the Church of Scotland and requesting that the project be postponed. The struggle is threatening to take on the character of a religious war.

The hotel is being built on a 12-dunam plot on the northern edge of the promenade, on which the Church of Scotland presently has a hostel. According to Dr. Zvika Gal, in charge of the Antiquities Authority's northern district, the entire northern part of the city of Tiberias was built on an ancient burial site.

Attorney Hagai Shmueli, representing the Church of Scotland, said that the church decided to invest $20 million in the project, which includes the conversion of the hostel into a 140-room hotel. Part of the construction will be devoted to restoring the existing hostel and building two new buildings, a pool and a small church.

The plans for the project were authorized by the various planning committees without any opposition from the ultra-Orthodox.

The superstructure of one of the buildings has already been built and Shmueli says that the Church has spent $6 million on the project so far.

When construction on the northern part of the plot began, a number of ancient graves were discovered. The Antiquities Authority ordered a pause in the construction in order to excavate in the area. The Church itself paid $500,000 for the excavations to take place.

The Antiquities Authority was supposed to begin excavations two weeks ago, but these have been held up by the extreme pressure exerted by the ultra-Orthodox. The Haredim claim that the site is an ancient Jewish cemetery.

On Friday, the rabbinical heads of Degel Hatorah published a letter in which they called on the Haredi population "to prevent this foul deed." The rabbis ruled that the struggle against the excavations is a "holy duty."

The Haredi pressure seems to be paying dividends. Tiberias mayor Benny Kiryati, formerly a fervent supporter of the project, has since withdrawn his support. Kiryati has gone so far as to suggest that the Interior Ministry has suggested that an exchange of territory be carried out with the Church of Scotland.

"There are 600 graves in the area," Kiryati asserts, and "it is not possible to simply wipe out a whole cemetery." He is proposing that the hotel be built as a high-rise or in a different piece of property some 200 meters away.

For his part, Shmueli is threatening to sue the municipality and take the case to the High Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry, whose deputy minister is the ultra-Orthodox Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism), has become involved, as well as the chairman of the Knesset House Committee, Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah). They want the project stopped.