Christian group builds replica ark

Tucked away in a nondescript office in northern Kentucky, Noah’s followers are rebuilding his ark.

The biblical wooden ship built to weather a worldwide flood was 152m long and about 24m high, according to Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry devoted to a literal telling of the Old Testament.

This modern ark, to be nestled on 325ha of rolling Kentucky farmland, is not designed to rescue the world’s creatures from a coming deluge. It is to tell the world that the Bible‘s legendary flood story was not a fable, but a part of human history.

“The message here is, God’s word is true,” said Mike Zovath, project manager. “There’s a lot of doubt: ‘Could Noah have built a boat this big, could he have put all the animals on the boat?’ Those are questions people all over the country ask.”

The ark will be the centrepiece of a proposed US$155 million ($188 million) religious theme park, called the Ark Encounter, and will include other biblical icons like the Tower of Babel and an old world-style village.

It is an expansion of the ministry’s first major public attraction, the controversial Creation Museum. It opened in 2007 and attracted worldwide attention for presenting stories from the Bible as historical fact, challenging evolution and asserting that the earth was created about 6000 years ago.

The ark is a different approach, Zovath said. “It’s really not about creation-evolution, it’s about the authority of the Bible starting with the ark account in Genesis.”

Inside the ark’s headquarters in Hebron, a small team of artists and designers are working on the visuals, but once the project begins early next year, there will be hundreds at the creation, including a team of Amish builders from Indiana who will erect the giant ark.

Zovath says the ark will have old-world details, like wooden pegs instead of nails, straight-sawed timbers and plenty of animals, some alive, some robotic. He said it has not yet been determined how many live animals will be in the boat, but the majority will be stuffed or animatronic. At their count, Noah had about 2000 to 4000 on board.

There are a handful of replica arks around the world, but Zovath said this will be authentic inside and out.

“When you get to walk through the boat and see how big this thing really was, and how many cages were there, and how much room there was for food and water … our hope is people start seeing that this is plausible, that the account could be believed,” Zovath said.

A longtime critic of Answers in Genesis argues the attraction will bring in converts to creationism by challenging scientific findings about the world’s history.

“Many think that since creationism is so irrational and so unscientific that nobody really could believe it, but that’s not so,” said Edwin Kagin, president of a nationwide atheist group. The park will be “so slick and so well done, you can get people to believe in anything”.

The Ark Encounter will not be the first US theme park inspired by the Bible, or the first with Noah’s big boat. A park in tourism-rich Orlando, Florida, features a portrayal of the crucifixion by actors six days a week, along with Jesus’ resurrection and gospel concerts.

Other replicas of Noah’s ship have been built around the world.

A huge fibreglass ark sits at the centre of a Hong Kong Noah’s Ark attraction, and another floating ark in the Netherlands is being built by a Dutchman, who wants to sail it to London for the 2012 Olympic Games. In the US, a church in Frostburg, Maryland, is building a to-scale ark supported by a steel frame.

Still, attractions with religious themes can be risky ventures, according to an amusement park expert.

“In some ways, it’s a two-edged sword: If you go for the religious market, you already have something that is somewhat unique in the market, and that particular market is known to be willing to make a special effort, to drive an extra distance, to get the church groups to go out and make a special outing,” said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisers of Richmond, Virginia.

“The problem with that approach is you always risk bordering on being disrespectful if not sacrilegious,” Gerner said. “There is a line as far as what you can do in this approach.”

A feasibility study on the Ark Encounter declared the park would attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year, Zovath said. The Creation Museum has attracted over a million people since it opened four years ago.

State officials are banking on the park’s success and the 900 jobs it is expected to create, by making the project eligible for more than US$40 million in tax rebates if the Ark Encounter hits its attendance marks.

Tying state incentives to a religious park has attracted criticism.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group, has said the park would run afoul of constitutional law.

“Noah didn’t get government help when he built the first ark, and the fundamentalist ministry behind the Kentucky replica shouldn’t either,” the group said.

Kagin said challenging the project in court would probably be a losing battle because of the way the tax incentives are structured.

“The legislation is so drafted that they will give this incentive to any organisation that is going to increase tourism in Kentucky,” he said. “And there’s no question whatsoever that this group will.”

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