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US theme park wins tax break as "place of worship"

The Holy Land Experience, a bible-based theme park that is more about Moses than Mickey Mouse, has won its four-year fight to avoid paying taxes.

Set up in 1991, the $16m park tries to take visitors 3,000 years back in time, creating an authentic Holy Land full of sand, centurions and the Bible's biggest names.

Visitors to the site in Orlando, Florida, can watch a musical version of the crucifixion, examine a 45 foot model of Jerusalem in AD66, or browse texts and tablets in the Scriptorium.

Other attractions include a recreation of Herod's Temple, Jesus's garden tomb, a street-market complete with costume-clad traders, and a Bedouin tent.

"It is our sincere hope that you will see God and his word exalted, that you will be encouraged in your search for enduring truth and the ultimate meaning of life," the Holy Land experience says on its website.

Despite its emphasis on entertainment, the Holy Land Experience has argued that it should be classed along with churches and museums and be exempt from property taxes.

After a long legal battle, Judge Cynthia MacKinnon agreed.

In her ruling, the judge said that it had not been proved that the Holy Land Experience was using its profits for anything other than "evangelising and worshipping".

The Holy Land Experience was facing a demand for unpaid property taxes dating from 2001 that almost totalled $1m, a sum its lawyers argued would have forced the park to close down.

Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan is deciding whether to appeal the judge's decision, saying that the park is different to other churches.

"None of those that I know charge $30 admission," he observed. "It's a business."

The Holy Land Experience, which said it does not attract enough visitors to break even, is funded by Zion's Hope Inc, a not-for-profit religious organisation that cites its goal as converting Jews to Christianity.

"Zion's Hope seeks to graciously proclaim to the Jewish people their need for personal salvation through Jesus the Messiah and to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to all men regardless of race, religion, gender, education, or national origin," the group's website said.

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