Scots Hotel: Why the Church of Scotland has a Galilee getaway
- 31 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
Spot the odd one out: Hilton, Marriott, Radisson, Church of Scotland, Holiday Inn. Yes, you're right, they are all names of hotels apart from… but wait a minute, the Church of Scotland also owns a hotel, and a very splendid one at that.
Very splendid, and very controversial too, since an organisation as thrifty and modest as the Scottish Kirk would not normally be expected to spend £13 million ($20m) building a luxury hotel.
It also happens to be situated in one of the world's hotspots - northern Israel, not far from Syria and Lebanon, in the town of Tiberias, which only a few years ago came under rocket attack.
So who is the Scots Hotel for, and why does the Church own it?
It all started back in the 1880s, when a group of Scottish missionaries led by a surgeon, Dr David Watt Torrance, came to the Holy Land to preach, convert, and heal. Torrance built a hospital in Tiberias which served patients from as far away as Damascus.
After the new Israeli state built its own hospital in the region in 1959, the three buildings housing the Scottish one were converted into a hospice for pilgrims, and then a modest guesthouse, owned by the Church of Scotland.
By the 1990s, the guesthouse was crumbling due to lack of investment, and the Church faced a dilemma. Sell it - and its beautiful grounds by the Sea of Galilee, including a little cemetery where Dr Torrance and his family are buried - or invest in it.
Expert advice suggested that the best way of recouping any investment would be to turn it into top-class hotel, which might not only pay its own way but even generate profits for the Church's good causes around the world.
Galilee is a very special place for Christians, full of Biblical resonances. This is where Jesus preached, where he is said to have performed miracles and gathered his band of disciples.
It was, according to a brochure available in the Scots Hotel today, "unthinkable" that the Kirk could "abandon work on the shore of the lake that saw so much of Jesus's ministry". In 1999, the General Assembly voted to invest around £10 million ($16m) to upgrade the property.
There was an uproar. Critics said it was scandalous to do this at a time when the Church at home was having to sell off properties and merge congregations, not to mention struggling to finance HIV/AIDS projects in Africa.
But supporters of the development won the day, insisting that the hotel could become a place of reconciliation in the Middle East. The General Assembly was particularly won over by Palestinian Christian delegates, who pleaded with the Kirk not to abandon its position in Israel.
Churchmen were acutely aware that if they sold the property it would be bought by Israelis, which would be a blow not just to Christianity in the region but also to the Palestinians, whose cause the Church of Scotland strongly supports.
The Rev Andrew McLellan, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland, initially led the campaign to abandon the project. His friend, the Rev Johnston McKay, describes it as "strange, bizarre and totally unjustifiable".
But today, Dr McLellan is convener of the World Mission Council, which oversees the Kirk's overseas projects, and he has completely reversed his position: "If we were inventing a hotel, we wouldn't choose Tiberias as the place to put it. But that's where we have a hotel and we are going to use that to be a place for hope, for peace and reconciliation."
And so the Scots Hotel exists, and thrives. The three old hospital buildings have been superbly refurbished, retaining the Ottoman feel of the late 19th Century - the territory was at that point part of the Ottoman empire - while incorporating some Scottish elements in the furnishings and interiors.
It is the hotel's policy to employ staff from all the region's religious confessions - Jews, Muslims and Christians. In the cosy "Ceilidh" bar I am served by a Russian Jewish barman wearing a kilt.
The gardens are magnificent. You do not have to be a pilgrim to enjoy sitting in the shade of flowering jacaranda trees and date palms, contemplating the origins of Christianity on the shores of Galilee. It was declared Israel's Boutique Hotel of the Year 2008.
I drive out into the Galilean hills with the Rev Colin Johnston, the Church of Scotland minister in Tiberias, part of whose job is to liaise with Palestinian Christian communities, most of whom are Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox. (Torrance's attempts to convert people to the Church of Scotland do not appear to have borne much fruit.)
In the village of Reineh, near Nazareth, Father Samuel Barhoum tells me how proud he is of the links with the Kirk. "We are a forsaken minority here," he says, alluding to the fact that outside the Middle East many people are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims. For him, the Scots Hotel in Tiberias is "an oasis".
The Church of Scotland is fiercely supportive of the Palestinian cause. But ironically the existence of the Scots Hotel - which relies to some extent on Israeli goodwill and receives hefty Israeli tourism grants - is said by some to tie the Church's hands.
Last year the General Assembly abandoned a motion calling for a boycott of goods from illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine because the Israeli government was proposing legislation that would make such calls a criminal offence.
Speakers condemned what they felt was Israeli "intimidation". "My view," says Johnston McKay, "is that the Church has not been as seriously critical of Israel's policies as it ought to have been… it is compromised because it needs the support of Israel's government for this hotel."
The hotel has been dogged with problems ever since the decision was taken to upgrade it. Civil unrest led to a slump in tourism. The discovery of ancient Jewish graves in the hotel grounds meant plans for a major extension had to be abandoned. And a few years ago, it was felt that the hotel could not compete with rivals in the area because it lacked a wellness centre or spa. The General Assembly duly voted to build a wellness centre - at the cost of an additional £1.5 million ($2.4m).
Rooms here cost as much as £200 ($320) a night, which puts it out of reach of most local people. Certainly few Palestinians, who it was originally hoped might come here to rub shoulders with Jewish people, could stay here.
Many in the Church still argue that it was all a big mistake, that it would have been more in keeping with the Kirk's traditions to support a more modest guesthouse for pilgrims or visiting churchmen. Or to build a reconciliation centre. Or a school.
I put it to Dr McLellan that, if they marketed the hotel better, they could surely attract many visitors from Scotland - and indeed around the world - who would gladly come to stay in its luxurious surroundings as part of a trip to a fascinating part of the world. Offering cut-rate tours to the Church' s 500,000 members might help to assuage critics of the multi million-pound investment.
He said they had tried to organise a package tour from Scotland last year, but dropped the idea because of lack of interest.
Maybe they need to try harder? The Kirk has a fabulous asset but - with a £13-million ($20m) price tag and a reputation as a hang-out for rich people - it looks, to some, like a white elephant, out of kilter with the Church's values.
I came away with the feeling that the Kirk is too embarrassed by its Galilean hotel to advertise it widely. They must be the most reluctant hoteliers in the world.
A Scottish Hotel In The Holy Land will be broadcast on Monday 31 October at 11:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Or listen later on the BBC iPlayer using the link above.