Evangelical Christian pilgrims flock to Jerusalem

Nov 03, 2003 02:26 PM EST

JERUSALEM -- Times are hard in Jerusalem, with many stores, restaurants and hotels shut down due to the ongoing Palestinian uprising, but you wouldn't have known it from the rapturous smiles on the faces of the thousands of evangelical Christians who thronged to the holy city this month to support Israel.

On Oct. 12, during an exuberant opening ceremony for the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles conference organized by the International Christian Embassy, more than 3,000 pilgrims from dozens of countries displayed their love of the Jewish state, its people and its policies.

The Jerusalem Convention Center shook with applause and sounds of praise when organizers paid homage to 50 Israeli bus drivers, some sporting ties for the occasion, who "day after day put themselves at risk."

Like their passengers, who ride the buses despite the threat of attack, the drivers were described as "a symbol of so many in Israel who will not sit down for terror."

The pilgrims accorded Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the keynote speaker, a thunderous standing ovation when he made his way to the stage, the kind of reception he rarely, if ever, receives from his fellow Israelis.

"Thank you for coming here," Sharon said. "Your presence here sends a strong message to the world, and your friendship is important to us, very important."

When the applause died down, Sharon added, "I want to thank you for your solidarity and your belief in the Jewish state."

Evangelical support for Israel and Jewish rights to the Holy Land is grounded in the belief that God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, as well as on the assumption that the second coming of the Messiah will not take place until the Jewish ingathering to Zion is complete.

Putting money where their belief is, over the years evangelicals from around the world have donated more than $100 million to Israeli causes.

Today, their money helps fund food and clothing for needy families, the transport and absorption of new immigrants, and even ambulances and bullet-proof vests for civilians and soldiers. Some support Jewish settlements based on the belief that the territory Israel captured in various wars is part of the biblical Land of Israel.

The evangelical community's unswerving support for Israel is in stark contrast to the stand taken by most Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The latter raise funds and lobby on behalf of Holy Land Christians, who are for the most part Arab and Palestinian.

Every year, tens of thousands of evangelicals show their solidarity by visiting Israel and pumping money into the local economy. Others make a point of selling Israeli-made products at religious events back home, in part to counteract the impact of anti-Israel boycotts.

Yechiel Eckstein, a rabbi and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says that evangelical Christians are an important pro-Israel force in American politics.

At a time when Israel is facing not only a bloody ground war with the Palestinians but uphill battles at the United Nations and other arenas, Israeli politicians do not take this solidarity for granted, Eckstein stresses.

"There's a greater realization and appreciation that in many respects evangelical Christians constitute a strategic ally for Israel and the Jewish people," Eckstein said.

Virtually all Israeli leaders make it a point to break bread with evangelical leaders, journalists and tour operators during their trips abroad.

American Jewish leaders also maintain close ties with their evangelical counterparts both on Capitol Hill and through interreligious events aimed at building bridges.